The Big Business (and Cheap Thrill) of Personal Carbon Credits

I’m paying Project Wren $15.70 per month to offset my carbon footprint. Can it do more than absolve my guilt?

YYou’re probably guiltier than you think. That’s what I learned when I calculated my carbon footprint with Project Wren, a startup that sells carbon offsets to individuals. According to the program’s calculations, I’m responsible for 19.51 metric tons of carbon each year, a bit more than the average American and three times more than the global average. To rub it in further, the Project Wren website explained that my emissions are equivalent to those produced in manufacturing 10,817 burgers or taking 20 roundtrip flights from Los Angeles to Paris. Yikes.

Then came the pitch: For $15.70 a month, Project Wren would pay one of the three carbon offset projects they support to sequester or reduce emissions equivalent to my supersize footprint, about 1.6 metric tons per month (Wren’s option to offset the emissions from my entire life cost $4,631.04). I could choose from a “community tree planting” project in East Africa, “clean cooking fuel for refugees” in Uganda, or “tech-enabled Amazon rainforest protection” in Peru.

I picked community tree planting. Cha-ching.

“You are now offsetting your carbon footprint!” Project Wren congratulated me. “This is a big step for you and our planet.”

After the warm (or shall I say cool) feel-good feeling passed though, I had to wonder how big a step it really was.

In theory, without changing a thing, I’d gone net zero. But had I really done my part? Was my $15.70 a month impacting anything other than my guilty conscience?

Project Wren, which launched in June 2019, joins a growing field of companies that sell carbon offsets to individuals and institutions. Though the carbon offset market for individuals has been booming for decades, much of the recent growth is due to expanding interest from companies hoping to burnish their green credentials. (This “voluntary” carbon market is dwarfed by the market for offsets mandated by regulation, such as the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism.)

According to a report by the nonprofit Forest Trends, the voluntary market for carbon credits hit a seven-year high in 2018 and has continued to grow. That year, 98.4 million metric tons of carbon offsets were purchased by individuals, companies, and institutions for $295.7 million. Recently, airlines like JetBlue and other companies have made big commitments to (and much ado about) achieving carbon neutrality. While there are many other ways to reduce emissions, in nearly every case, getting to zero means offsetting something.

One reason for this growing demand for carbon offsets may be the lack of federal action on climate change, says Matthew Kotchen, an economist at Yale University who has written on carbon offsets and consumer behavior. “When there is less action in the regulatory or at the political level, people do more stuff on their own.”

The question is whether that “stuff” is effective.

Carbon offsets have long been criticized for being a way for guilty industries and consumers to wash our hands of blame without making more substantive changes to our carbon-intensive lifestyles. In 2006, journalist George Monbiot compared carbon offsets to indulgences sold by the Catholic Church in the 15th century, absolving sinners’ guilt while undermining momentum for more difficult changes. Every year since then, global emissions have grown. Maybe he had a point.

The most important thing that people need to do, more than offsetting their own emissions, is actually try to change the rules of the game.

And even if you don’t wash your hands of responsibility to make other changes after purchasing a carbon credit, it can be a challenge to prove that the carbon offsets you buy are real. “If the world were graded on the historic reliability of carbon offsets, the result would be a solid F,” wrote Lisa Song in a recent ProPublica investigation into large-scale rainforest preservation offset projects. While a carbon offset project might look good on paper, it can be difficult and expensive to prove the project is reducing or sequestering the emissions it claims it is.

After unreliable offsets sold to huge government programs in the early aughts provoked questions about the legitimacy of carbon offsets, third-party verification from organizations like Verra and The Gold Standard became an important feature of the market. But even verified projects can have mixed results, and not every project out there is verified.

Project Wren hasn’t quite solved this problem. Of the three carbon offset projects Project Wren supports, only the community tree-planting project is verified by a third party—though another is in the process of being verified, according to co-founder and CEO Landon Brand. Brand says that for smaller scale projects, the verification process can be too expensive to justify the cost. For their “tech-enabled rainforest protection” project, for example, verification would double the price of offsetting.

Project Wren does make an effort to be transparent: It publishes the receipts from all transactions with offset providers and gives users regular updates and data on progress from the carbon offset projects they support, like satellite imagery of protected forest in Peru. The project I supported publishes data on the diameter of specific trees growing in their carbon-sucking groves. (This month I got an email from Project Wren reassuring me that Covid-19 has not yet had an impact on the tree-planting project.)

But Wren’s most effective innovation, and what sets it apart from older competitors like Terrapass and CoolEffect, may not be the carbon credits themselves, but the way they are framed as one small part of the bigger solution.

Carbon credits alone aren’t going to halt climate change. The 98.4 million tons of carbon offset by the entire voluntary carbon market in 2018 accounted for less than one-quarter of one percent of total global emissions that year. The United Nations, meanwhile, estimates that global emissions will have to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 if we are likely to limit global warming to 1.5ºC beyond pre-industrial levels, the threshold after which the risk of damages from climate change becomes progressively higher.

Buying carbon credits is best viewed as a partial solution.

“If the offsets are real, a ton of CO2 reduced is the same as a ton of CO2 produced,” says Christopher Jones, who directs the CoolClimate Network at UC Berkeley. “So it does get you out of jail, but it’s not free. The most logical strategy is to find ways to reduce emissions that work well for you and then to offset the remaining part that you can’t reduce easily.”

Jones designed the CoolClimate Carbon Footprint Calculator, which Wren uses on its website, to help people do just that. When a user logs on, the calculator is filled automatically with average emissions data based on the user’s location. Then a user can adjust that baseline data to get a more accurate estimate of their carbon footprint and what contributes to it the most — driving or flying? Chicken or pork? Gas or electric?

Jones points out that while information on its own is not effective at changing people’s behavior, it can have an impact if delivered to someone who already wants to change and is looking for the best way to do it.

“You want to follow up a message of fear or a message of guilt with a real solution,” he says.

Project Wren aims to be that follow up. “It’s kind of like there’s potential energy out there,” says Brand. “There’s a lot of people who have a lot of climate anxiety. And we can turn that anxiety into action.”

Buying carbon credits with Project Wren may be one route to that sort of action (Brand says the conversion rate from calculator to offset is about 10%), but the site also offers other suggestions. Rather than leave me wallowing in guilt, the website explained that becoming a vegetarian would knock off 1.5 tons from my total footprint. Each roundtrip flight I could avoid would cut another 1.5 tons. (Covid-19 has made that one an easy change. The pandemic has impacted emissions around the world in all sorts of other ways as well.)

“Buying offsets is not bad,” Kotchen reckons. “It pushes the market and encourages innovation and is important. But the most important thing that people need to do, more than offsetting their own emissions, is actually try to change the rules of the game.” Wren directs users toward this action, too, with messages on the site urging them to take political actions like supporting decarbonization laws, in addition to buying offsets.

Still, a month after subscribing to personal carbon offsets, I’m not entirely convinced I’m not just a peasant buying indulgences from the church. Project Wren is venture-funded and takes 20% of revenue from each carbon credit, which Brand says it needs to reach more users more quickly. “If Wren has the growth of something like Facebook, or even Casper Mattress or Peloton, that’s going to be huge for the environment,” he reasons, straight-faced.

I’ve come to think that what matters most about offsetting might not actually be the offset per se. More significant is the sense of responsibility that comes with confronting the true extent of my impact and knowing all the ways I can change. I haven’t gone vegan yet, but at least that decision will weigh on me—all two tons of it per year.

“The goal is to get people to do something about climate change,” says Brand, “and to have a little bit of optimism in saying I can do this as an individual and as a society we can do this too.”

So don’t feel guilty. But feel responsible.

Writing on science/environment/misc. North East South West Twitter: @jamesNESW

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