Guest post: Choosing a carbon offset programme – a guide for educators

Kate Cory-Wright, one of the founding members of the ELT Footprint Facebook group and an EFL author, teacher, and teacher trainer, has been reforesting a 7-hectare plot of land in the Andes for the past nine years. (See her blog posts about the experience here and here). Based on her experiences of reforesting, she reviews what to consider when considering carbon offset programmes.  

Choosing a carbon offset programme: a guide for educators

oaks, some of the most efficient trees for capturing carbon

What’s your daytime job like? Do you use an interactive whiteboard or iPads? Classroom aircon or heating? Do you research photos and materials, or travel to speak at conferences? Every choice we make as teachers, trainers, writers and editors has a greenhouse gas (GHG) price tag on it, from carbon dioxide and methane to nitrous oxide. Sound depressing? It is. But there is still plenty we can do to achieve a greener brighter future! 

Obviously our first goal should be to reduce the amount of emissions. That might mean adapting the classroom heating / aircon, reducing photocopies, and/or taking the train to conferences. (See the conversations on our ELTFootprint Facebook group for more ideas). A secondary option to compensate for some emissions from our jobs is to pay money into a carbon offset programme (COP). Essentially this means calculating our emissions and purchasing equivalent “credits” from non-profit providers which will remove some GHG emissions elsewhere from the earth’s atmosphere. For example, by paying an organization to plant trees.  

If you’re looking for a COP to invest in, you’ll find numerous programmes to choose from. Here are some useful tips when choosing. 

WHAT KIND OF COPs CAN I INVEST IN?  

We tend to think of COPs as forestry projects (rewilding, reforesting, land regeneration, etc.). However, many COPs today offer clean-energy and renewable energy projects, too. This means they might distribute cooking stoves, install solar panels, invest in mass transit projects, build wind farms, or make use of animal waste. Others go beyond clean energy. You could choose a COP that installs water filters in the Philippines, provides fresh water to Malawi, or captures methane from an Indonesian waste dump. The variety of options available is endless! 

Which is better, a forestry project or a renewable energy offset? Opinions vary wildly on this. Some prefer forestry projects since trees grab CO2 directly for use in photosynthesis. Others argue that renewables are a better form of offset as they address the central cause of climate change, namely our dependence on using fossil fuels for energy. 

As an educator, you might prefer to support an educational project, since that will tackle future behaviour. MyClimate.org offers COP schemes like investing in a climate laboratory. They also fund a national competition in which students innovate future ways to save energy. Or how about NativeEnergy, which funds renewable energy in schools? Or choose a variety? Your choice! 

WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR IN A COP? 

Regardless of which project you choose, every COP should be: 

1 Real (See the section below.)

2 Verifiable Is there some independent oversight? Ideally, a third party should regularly assess the project and even penalize the landowner (or project manager) if it’s not going to plan. Independent oversight also ensures that the COP achieves what it claims to do. 

Various organizations verify and audit COPs, including Voluntary Gold Standard (VGS) and the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS). Other big offset certifiers include the American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve, Gold Standard, Plan Vivo and Verra. (Note that verification standards tend to be tighter in Europe than in the USA.)

3 Additional Picture a COP that provides energy-efficient light bulbs for a community. That’s positive! Now imagine the government was already planning to do this. That project would have happened anyway! Since you want to compensate for emissions, try to choose a project that is “additional” and would not otherwise happen. 

4 Permanent It goes without saying that we want to reduce our emissions permanently! So, if we choose a tree-planting initiative, we obviously want to pay for trees that will live. This means choosing a long-term project, on a plot of land that won’t be sold soon – or where the trees will be felled in ten years. (If that happens, you won’t have achieved your goal of offsetting carbon.) 

Personally, I’m always suspicious of projects that claim to plant a million/billion trees, because I know from my own reforestation experience how many trees we lost, partly due to the drought-prone climate here and partly because we were so overzealous about planting initially, we left them to fend for themselves 😦 A COP that plants fewer trees but maintains them is better than one in which the trees die before capturing any carbon. 

HOW DO I KNOW IT’S NOT A SCAM? 

How can we avoid scams? The answer is we can’t. But we can take some sensible steps to ensure that projects are real: 

  • Avoid “future” hypothetical schemes. If the project doesn’t exist now, then it may never happen
  • Find examples of previous projects to verify the COP’s past successes
  • Choose a project near you, e.g., Terrapass (USA), so you can visit the project and see for yourself  
  • Find a tree-planting COP with photos and tracking apps
  • Finally, check a directory of verified projects to see if yours is listed. 

For this, refer to an independent website with a directory of endorsed offset providers and worldwide projects, e.g. Carbon Catalog or Green-E .

HOW DO I KNOW WHERE MY MONEY’S GOING? 

Unfortunately you don’t – and many COPs are unlikely to give you this information. 

To avoid the uncertainty associated with COPs, some people prefer to choose well-established programmes with a good reputation, e.g., The Conservation Fund (in business since 1985), The Woodland Trust,   and Myclimate.org (an award-winning organization). Other COPs that have been personally recommended to me are: 

(1) Cool Effect – offers projects that are ethically proven and scientifically validated. Apparently over 90% of every dollar goes directly to the project partners.

(2) NativeEnergy – states that all their carbon offset projects undergo third-party certification to ensure that they truly occurred. This COP also supports existing community-led or NGO-funded projects that have run out of money so your purchase helps finish the project.

(3) TreeSisters – is popular with EFL professionals   

Note that this is just a small selection of ones that I know. There are plenty more! 

WHAT DO COPs COST?  

Offset schemes vary widely in terms of the cost, from $0.10 per tonne to $44.80 per tonne of carbon offset. 

The first rule of thumb is that “cheapest is not always best”. Take this example. Certified COPs tend to be more expensive than uncertified, but you know that you’re buying it with a guarantee. That’s surely better than giving a gift to a scammer! 

Why does the cost differ so much? To some extent it depends on the size of the COP portfolio. The bigger the portfolio, the cheaper the projects (with more offsets, they can offer more competitive prices).  However, the prices also vary radically because they offer different benefits. 

Some cost factors to consider in tree-planting projects include: 

  • Type of project Reforestation projects are cheaper than land regeneration schemes (i.e., land that is totally devoid of trees and biodiversity). I can personally testify that land regeneration projects are more expensive because money is spent on improving the soil and maintaining the trees. Planting them is actually the cheapest part.  
  • Type of tree planted Some trees are much cheaper to buy than others. For example, in my case I can buy small saplings for $2.50 but taller saplings (which survive better on my land) cost $3.50. Ideally, your primary goal should be to find  projects which plant trees, which will grow strong and capture carbon. Trees around the age of 10 years generally capture the most carbon. Finally, deciduous trees such as oak and horse chestnut sequester more carbon than other species. Those trees, however, are not indigenous to certain regions.
  • Habitat protection You might prefer to pay more for a project that  protects endangered species. TreeSisters, for example, restores highland forests to protect endangered gorillas in Cameroon. This “double bonus” costs more. 
  • Location As a rule, it’s cheaper to purchase offsets in a developing country since land and labour is cheaper there. However, do some research! (In the past I’ve found a tree-planting project on land soon to be flooded by a dam, as well as one next to a logging company. This causes “leakage”, i.e., the COP is compensating for deforestation next door.)

In short, the number of trees you pay for is significantly less important than the impact they have! 

Regardless of the project type, a scheme with social benefits is inevitably more expensive than one without. The more social benefits, the greater the cost. Picture a project that provides efficient cooking stoves. It might offer local employment, help poor families save money on fuel, and improve their household air quality. That’s a pretty efficient use of your money. 

CAN I GET FINANCIAL HELP? 

Lewis Lansford and other international conference speakers have successfully managed to get their sponsors to pay offsets. So why not try asking your school or institute to help you, especially if they send you to an EFL conference? Let’s encourage publishers and educational organizations to share the responsibility of offsetting those carbon emissions! As the old adage goes, the worst that can happen is that they say no! 

Sources

https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2019/aug/02/offsetting-carbon-emissions-how-to-travel-options

https://www.conserve-energy-future.com/best-popular-us-carbon-offset-providers.php

https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/energy/short-guide-carbon-offsetshttps://www.goingzerowaste.com/blog/where-to-buy-carbon-offsets-and-why-you-should

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