S. SMITH: A few weeks ago, one of NPR's reporters traveled deep into the Amazon rain forest and watched it burn. This happens every year around this time as people try to clear out room for farmland.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm actually walking on the remains of the forest right now. What was once verdant green is now reduced to this white, powdery ash. There are tree trunks smoldering in front of me. Some are actually still shooting up flames.
SMITH: This is NPR correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. She and producer Lauren Migaki traveled to the rain forest to see this destruction firsthand. It is an amazing series of reports about the loss of trees in the Amazon.
R. SMITH: And you should go and listen to them. They're on npr.org.
SMITH: But the key part for us here at PLANET MONEY was what happened when the reporting team came back from the Amazon.
SMITH: Lourdes and her producer, Lauren Migaki, started to think about just how far they had traveled to do a story about global warming.
LAUREN MIGAKI: Yeah, our photographer, Kainaz, and I traveled from D.C. to JFK and then finally landed in Rio to meet up with you, Lulu (ph).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And then we went to Sao Paulo to look at the drought where we drove around for, like, 300 miles in a car.
MIGAKI: We spent a lot of hours very snuggly in the back of a Toyota HiLux, so...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, and then we actually even rented a plane...
MIGAKI: Oh, awesome, awesome [expletive].
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Which was very scary.
MIGAKI: Everything's going to be fine.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There was even a motorbike ride into the rain forest. I mean, we took pretty much every mode of transportation that you could take.
SMITH: Thousands of miles, hundreds of gallons of gas - basically destroying the environment to do a series of reports about people destroying the environment.
SMITH: They didn't destroy the environment.
SMITH: But they dented it a little bit.
SMITH: They dented it a little bit. And they felt terrible about this. I mean, remember, they had just watched thousands of acres of rain forest burning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We called it scenes from the end of the world.
MIGAKI: Because we saw a lot on that trip that was just - just abysmally bleak, so I think knowing that we were contributing to it added to that feeling.
SMITH: They wanted to know if there was something they could do to make this better. So they did a little research and they came up with a possible solution - carbon offsets. You might have seen these on company websites when you book an airline ticket or a U-Haul.
SMITH: It is basically this little box you can check. You pay a little bit of money and somehow the fossil fuels that you've pumped into the atmosphere by your irresponsible travels - somehow that all goes away.
SMITH: Lourdes and Lauren liked this idea, but they got a little worried that maybe it was too good to be true. So they came to us at PLANET MONEY with the question.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we wanted to ask you - does carbon offsetting actually work? Can we pay our way out of our carbon footprint for this trip?
SMITH: Or is this whole carbon offsetting business, as I have sometimes suspected, a giant scam?
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SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.
SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Today on the show - is there really a get out of jail free card for polluting? Can you just go to website and undo environmental damage with the click of a mouse?
SMITH: We delve into the business of carbon offsets and meet the person who thought the whole thing up.
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SMITH: A brief recap of how the world is going to end - burning fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide makes the Earth warm up, a lot of smart people try to figure out how to get all that carbon dioxide out before it's too late.
SMITH: And one of those smart people is a woman named Sheryl Sturges.
SHERYL STURGES: Hi, my name is Sheryl Sturges.
SMITH: And you invented carbon offsets.
STURGES: I guess you could say that.
STURGES: I'm a little modest, so it sounds like a very big claim, but I was the one that had the idea, so maybe yes.
SMITH: Sheryl is this totally sweet woman. I met her outside of her house in Cornwall, N.Y. She immediately pointed out the solar panels on her roof, which she uses to heat her whole house. She drives a Prius.
STURGES: My dad's an ecologist. I grew up in a forest in the summers and it's a beautiful New England forest. It's kind of a magical place.
SMITH: But in 1987, Sheryl did not fit your typical image of a nature lover. She was an executive at a big energy company, an energy company that was busy investing in the dirtiest, most polluting kind of energy out there.
STURGES: I was working with the AES corporation and we were building coal-fired power plants.
SMITH: Sheryl was building coal-fired power plants.
SMITH: I know. At the time, though, fossil fuels and global warming were just starting to be talked about. And the CEO of Sheryl's company had been reading about this stuff and started to get worried.
STURGES: And he came and said, Sheryl, I'm concerned that global warming may be a real thing and I'm concerned that AES is contributing to it and can you find a way of helping AES minimize or avoid our emissions in the area? No one had ever asked the question on a commercial level.
SMITH: Sheryl went to the library and got every article and book on climate change that she could find. There was all this speculation at the time about what CO2 might do to temperatures, that it might trap in heat and warm the planet. And there were all kinds of crazy ideas being floated around about what to do about it.
STURGES: There's a wide range of things you can do with CO2. You can inject it in soda. It makes soda bubble.
SMITH: So you take CO2 from a coal plant and put it into a Pepsi or something like - is that true?
STURGES: Yeah, that's what they do. They can, yeah.
SMITH: That is awesome, but it's not very practical. Apparently we don't drink enough Pepsi to use the carbon emissions from a coal plant.
SMITH: So no on the Pepsi.
SMITH: No on the Pepsi. And there was another study that proposed liquefying the CO2 and putting it in a big container and sinking it into the ocean.
SMITH: That sounds dramatic.
SMITH: Dramatic yes, but also apparently super expensive. They couldn't do it. So Sheryl kept looking and looking, and one day she is flipping through an energy journal and she came across this theoretical idea, and it was about trees. So, you know, trees breathe in carbon dioxide. They use it to grow leaves and branches. Everybody learns this in school. And the journal said, you want to get rid of all this carbon dioxide, plant more trees.
STURGES: And it was like, if you planted acacia trees, which grow very quickly, you could plant one of the huge islands of Hawaii with acacia trees and it would absorb something like the entire U.S.'s CO2. So I figured, OK, my little power plant is much less than that so I need an area of land much less than this big Island in Hawaii and I think that maybe that's going to work out for us.
SMITH: It was genius. Sheryl thought we can just plant a bunch of trees around the coal plants and the coal plant would pump CO2 into the atmosphere and the trees would suck it out. She took her idea to an environmental research group - World Resources Institute - to a guy named Paul Faeth.
PAUL FAETH: Nobody had done this. It was very novel, innovative, weird - whatever term you want to pick.
SMITH: Paul asked a team of scientists to vet this idea, and they said, yeah, this could work. He told Sheryl and Sheryl was thrilled. She thought this is great. We'll put a little park outside of the coal plant in Connecticut, plant some trees, and she asked Paul, how many trees are we talking about here?
STURGES: It was 52 million trees.
STURGES: That was a lot of trees. It was over a 10-year period, so it was less per year.
SMITH: For one coal plant.
STURGES: For one call plant, yeah. That was the estimate of how many trees it would take to offset the carbon that the plant would emit in its 40-year lifetime.
SMITH: Fifty-two million trees - you know, we have looked at this coal plant from Google Earth and there is not room for 52 million trees. It's next to a cemetery. It's next to this huge body of water, a fabric shop, there's a Dunkin' Donuts there. There is not room for 52 million trees.
SMITH: And these could not just be any trees. The calculations called for these special trees called Leucaena leucocepholia (ph). They're these really weird-looking trees with skinny branches and big leaves like a fern. But they grow superfast and they suck down a lot of CO2. And AES needed to plant 52 million of them somewhere. So Sheryl went to a forester scientist with a thought.
STURGES: And I said, I've got this crazy idea. Do I have to plant the trees in Connecticut or could they be anywhere? And he said, well, you know, when CO2's emitted within a period of, you know, a week or two, it's anywhere in the whole atmosphere. So you could plant them anywhere. That freed me up. I didn't have to do it just in Connecticut.
SMITH: You could plant them anywhere and they would still suck up the carbon emissions from the coal plant in Connecticut. So Paul and Sheryl started looking around for a place somewhere on Earth that could fit 52 million trees and where there would be enough people to plant them and take care of them.
STURGES: And there was one program that seemed ideal with an organization called CARE.
SMITH: The program was in the mountains of Guatemala. Farmers there were really struggling and CARE was trying to help them make a better living. Sheryl and Paul thought maybe AES could pay these farmers to grow their trees as a crop. The farmers would get the money and AES could say that its coal plants's carbon emissions were canceled out.
SMITH: And the total cost to AES for planting all these trees and offsetting their coal emissions - $2 million.
SMITH: Two million dollars and 40 years of coal plant emissions would go away. The project got a lot of press.
Oh, this is a Time magazine.
STURGES: This is Time magazine from October 24, 1988.
SMITH: Oh, my gosh, there's a cigarette ad.
STURGES: Yeah (laughter) here it is. "Antidote For A Smokestack" it's called - is the title. Guatemalan seedlings will be planted to combat the greenhouse effect.
SMITH: And this is the moment that launched a thousand carbon offsets because all around the country, CEOs were sitting, reading their Time magazine and going wait a minute here. It's easy, it's simple, I love trees, my company loves trees, you know, it's great PR and we don't even have to look at the trees. We can have someone plant them halfway around the world. It was a great deal. And car rental companies, airlines, travel sites, Dell computer, HSBC - they've all paid to plant millions of trees. They've all used Sheryl's idea.
SMITH: I think you might've been the first person to look at carbon as, like, a - I don't want to say a currency, but you know what I mean?
STURGES: No, it is. It's a commodity. We were trying to commoditize carbon so that you could trade it and conserve it and, like, sell the non-production of it.
SMITH: So after talking to Sheryl and Paul, I was ready to call up our reporters and say that, yes, carbon offsets seem legit. In theory, you can pay someone to plant trees that will undo the carbon emissions from your trip. But the more I looked into it the more I started reading about the other side of carbon offsets. Hannah Wittman is a professor at the University of British Columbia. She actually did a study on AES's treeplanting program in Guatemala, and she said she saw a lot of problems.
HANNAH WITTMAN: There was conflicts over land use. The farmers didn't have a sense that it was their obligation to offset carbon for North American consumers.
SMITH: Hannah says when all of those farmers in the region started planting trees, it meant less room for food. There were actually food shortages in the area. Then some of the farmers decided they didn't want to plant those weird Leucaena leucocepholia trees. They wanted to plant fruit trees. That was great for the food supply, but fruit trees don't suck up carbon like the Leucaena leucocepholia trees. And Hannah says by her calculations the program with the Guatemalan farmers only offset about 10 percent of the coal plant's emissions. And Hannah told me this happens all the time with offset programs. They get messy. There are all these unexpected consequences. You give a bunch of farmers in another country a lot of money to plant trees and there are food shortages or the money causes a conflict within the community or gets distributed unfairly. She says even the most well-meaning programs have problems.
WITTMAN: Because of the social dynamics of power over land access and land use, you're often resulting in a social and environmental outcome that's not what was anticipated. The critical sort of on-the-ground evaluations that I have seen suggest that this kind of outcome is actually the norm.
SMITH: Look, none of this is surprising because the main thing for people who buy carbon offsets is to actually do the buying to start the project to plant the trees and then what happens afterwards, well, you know, money's already been paid. The carbon's already been sent out into the atmosphere. The bigger issue that I have with carbon offsets is how does it affect the behavior of the polluters? How does it affect the people who are buying the offsets in the first place?
WITTMAN: A lot of people liken carbon offsets back to the Roman Catholic indulgences that you could just keep doing bad things - i.e. keep emitting carbon - and just paying the church back for it. The idea that they can offset their emissions is basically a license to continue polluting.
SMITH: So just keep planting more trees and emitting more carbon dioxide and then planting even more trees to make up for it.
SMITH: Hannah says carbon offsets give companies and people an excuse not to change their behavior. And changing behavior is what really needs to happen. And yes, she says, carbon offsets are a multibillion-dollar industry, but the carbon that's offset every year is a fraction of 1 percent of total carbon emissions. Hannah says we need a carbon tax. That, she says, actually changes behavior. But in the case of our NPR reporters, Hannah says get the offsets. Just be careful about which program you use and try to travel less in the future. I had Paul Faeth, the man who worked with Sheryl Sturges on the original carbon offset project, do some travel calculations for Lourdes and Lauren.
FAETH: And what I end up getting is that the flight portion would be, like, 80 trees and the car portion would be eight trees, for total 88 trees needed to offset the trip.
MIGAKI: That is not as many trees as I thought it was going to be.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's not a lot of trees. That's all right. Well, what does that mean in money?
FAETH: For this, the total cost is about 50 bucks to offset and to plant those trees.
MIGAKI: Wow. I would pay 50 bucks to feel slightly less bad about this.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I would pay 50 bucks, too.
SMITH: It's not even 50 bucks a person. It's, like, 50 bucks total.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow, that's really - that's really affordable to feel good about yourself. You know what? I'm going to start doing this whenever I travel.
SMITH: You can literally hear the guilt disappearing. They are so happy about this and really, like, that exchange you had with them shows you the great thing and the real problem with carbon offsets. I mean, on one hand, that sounds so cheap. It makes it seem like you didn't really do that much harm to the planet if you can, for 50 bucks, absolve it. And, you know, the next time they hop on a plane, they may not even think about it at all. This may just become habit - hop on a plane, pay a few bucks after the trip is over, done.
SMITH: That's true. But on the other hand, Paul Faeth and Sheryl Sturges say planting trees is a really good thing. It's always a good thing. And in a world where we are dealing with all this horrible news about the climate and the end of the planet, I feel like it is nice to know that there is something that you can do. Like, that is 50 bucks that was not going to help the environment before.
SMITH: They might have gone out to dinner instead, but now it's going to trees.
SMITH: But now it's going to trees.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, Lauren, 25 bucks each.
MIGAKI: Yeah, sure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You pay 25, I pay 25. OK, split it.
MIGAKI: I probably owe more for coming from D.C., so I'll cover three
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, all right, 30 it is - 20-30, that sounds fair.
SMITH: OK, Stacey, they don't feel guilty anymore, but I'm going to ask you...
SMITH: ...Between you and me, would you buy carbon offsets after doing this whole thing?
SMITH: Yes. I would.
SMITH: Would you?
SMITH: I would. I would because, listen, I mean, they're not perfect, right, clearly. But here is how I think about it - yes to buy them, but also to continue to feel a little bit guilty.
SMITH: Just a little guilt.
SMITH: Exactly, just a little bit of guilt.
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SMITH: PLANET MONEY - we answer your ethical dilemmas. You can write us - firstname.lastname@example.org - or find us on Facebook or Twitter.
SMITH: Today's episode was produced by Kristen Clark and Jess Jiang.
SMITH: And now that you are done listening to PLANET MONEY, my I recommend NPR's brand-new podcast? It is called the Politics podcast - give you one guess what it's about.
SMITH: Donald Trump.
SMITH: And company - it is hosted by all of our great political correspondents, including the fantastic Sam Sanders. I've heard some of these and they are hilarious and informative. You should listen. NPR's Politics podcast at npr.org/podcasts and on the NPR One app. I'm Robert Smith.
SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Thanks for listening.
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