Carbon offsets are a complicated and often misunderstood proposition. They’re no substitute for reducing our carbon emissions at the source. As Kimberly Nicholas insists in the must-read Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World—a book that combines unassailable facts with personal anecdotes and a plan for action—the best way to reduce our individual footprints is to go flight-, car-, and meat-free.
That said, lifestyles won’t change en masse overnight and the climate crisis needs to be tackled now on multiple fronts. Carbon offsets play a crucial role. As Peter Miller, an expert on the topic at the National Resource Defense Council, told AFAR last year: “By investing in credible, verified offsets, everyone can help compensate for the pollution associated with their travel and contribute to solutions to the climate crisis. Well-designed and implemented offset projects can cut emissions and provide important benefits to local communities.”
Your carbon footprint doesn’t just begin when you step inside an airport. Conservation International, a nonprofit environmental organization, has a carbon footprint calculator that asks you about energy usage at home, miles driven, and diet among other things before estimating an annual footprint (and associated cost). Tomorrow’s Air is another great option for travelers. It drives funds to Climeworks, a company building technology to suck carbon out of the air. It’s a Plan B option for now (removing carbon rather than reducing emissions) but it has tremendous potential. Travelers can also consider choosing an airline with a more proactive approach to reducing emissions.
But what about the impact of carbon offsets on the ground? What does that look like? Conservation International updates the public on its work with impact reports, including several REDD+ projects worldwide. (The initials stand for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.”) Here’s a look at two of them, to show just where carbon offset money makes a difference.
Less deforestation, more beekeepers: The Chyulu Hills REDD+ Project
Brands that have purchased credits toward this project include Tiffany, United, and Gucci.
The Chyulu Hills region is a stunning slice of viridescence in southeastern Kenya, a mountain range wedged between two national parks (Tsavo and Amboseli) with plenty of opportunities for visitors to spot black rhinos, cheetahs, and antelope. Operators here include luxury ecobrand andBeyond, with trips like Travel With Purpose in Kenya and Mountain Biking in Chyulu.
It’s here, in a critical wildlife corridor within the greater Tsavo Conservation Area, that a partnership between Conservation International and the Chyulu Hills Conservation Trust plans to prevent an estimated 18 million tons of CO2 over the next 30 years. (The numbers are verified by independent auditing organization Verra.)
How will they do that? The plan is to stop the destruction of forests, agricultural encroachment, and practices like charcoal burning by a process of enforcement (with enlarged ranger patrols, who also work on firefighting), awareness (with environmental education of the locals), and—somewhat crucially—incentive, where the money from carbon credit sales directly benefits landowners and stakeholders. Many locals are being trained in the fine art of beekeeping, too, with 630 hives established across the region. These have provided community jobs, especially for women, and the bees even act as a deterrent to elephants, keeping them away from homes.
This financial aspect will, in the words of a 2020 impact report from the organizations, “have a huge impact in persuading communities that it is profitable to balance sustainable use, wildlife, cattle, and other enterprise.” It’s a holistic approach that also aims to address local poverty and lack of healthcare and education, too. Last year, five primary schools benefitted from new fencing, new teachers were trained, and solar panels were installed at a local Red Cross water project.
Another bonus of this project? It’s completely managed by local institutions that own the land or manage it for landowners. Owners include Indigenous Maasai community groups and conservation NGOs, as well as national park and national forest authorities.
A coffee crop that gives back: The Alto Mayo REDD+ Project
Brands that have purchased credits toward this project include Disney, Salesforce, and United—and money donated via CI’s carbon calculator also goes to both projects.
The 182,000-hectare (450,000-acre) Alto Mayo Protected Forest sprawls over a mountainous and ecologically significant stretch of the eastern Andes in Peru. While it’s protected, and has been in some form since the 1960s, it’s not immune to the activities of humankind. Much of the land has been deforested in order to plant coffee, which became less productive as the natural balance was disrupted and soil degraded, prompting more forest clearance.
A partnership between the Peruvian government and Conservation International aims to disrupt this vicious cycle, delivering 10.3 million tons of verified emissions reductions over two decades.
Here, rather than battle farmers who just want to earn their livelihood, project owners work collaboratively with more than 1,000 families, exchanging agricultural training, education, and medical supplies in return for pledges to end deforestation. Farmers have seen quantum leaps in the production and quality of their coffee and are earning organic and Fair Trade labels. They’ve even formed a cooperative to obtain premium pricing for the coffee. The model is being rolled out elsewhere in the country. One leader of the co-op, Gricerio Carrasco, said he didn’t know what a protected area was when he moved to Alto Mayo. “With time, the conservation agreements have opened many doors for us. It’s as though we were reborn.”
Conservation International says it has prevented 16,798 hectares (41,500 acres) of deforestation between 2008 and 2018, a reduction of orchid trafficking to zero, and protection of 1,000 species, while earning a revenue of $3 million for the coffee cooperative and 140 new jobs. Much of the economic success happened while COVID was disrupting things worldwide. Oh, and 8,000 seedlings have been planted to provide shade for the coffee plants and as habitat for birds and other species.
For further reading, Outside ran a great piece last year, “Here’s What a Carbon Offset Actually Looks Like,” where the writer witnessed the impact firsthand, meeting a rancher who was being paid by the Montana Grasslands Carbon Initiative to let grasses grow and soil regenerate (with a quantifiable reduction in carbon).