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Americans deserve better coverage of carbon finance

June 22nd, 2019

This Op-Ed first appeared in The Hill and an edited version also appears on Ecosystem Marketplace.

Why we wrote it:  Beginning in May 2019, ProPublica reporter Lisa Song went on a tear with at least seven anti-carbon offsetting articles.  Done under the auspices of an “investigative” outlet like ProPublica, any topic covered is, by definition, being “investigated.” In other words, when the mission of a news outlet is a figurative hammer, then the topic at hand can’t be treated as anything other than a nail – the coverage is going to be negative and biased.

Ms. Song’s sustained fusillade, and the fact that it was done through a broad news outlet, are unique. Not unique is the phenomenon of unknowledgeable, unaccountable, and dilettante journalists who swoop in, do lasting and undeserved damage, and then leave. They are, in a sense, a lot like seagulls: they fly in, make a lot of noise, shit everywhere, and then leave! For example, in 2013 freelance hack Ryan Jacobs wrote The Atlantic piece “The Forest Mafia: How Scammers Steal Millions Through Carbon Markets.” Like Ms. Song, he used improper and/or outdated examples, cherry-picked facts, took things out of context, and failed to examine the many success stories out there. Though Steve Zwick wrote a thorough rebuttal to the piece, Mr. Jacobs provided no updates to his article nor did he write any follow-on pieces about forest carbon offsets. And – unlike Zwick’s rebuttal – Jacobs’ uncontested and shoddy work was then referenced and promulgated by many other outlets, as he moved on to writing his hot new book about truffle crimes.

Unfortunately, rebuttals like ours too often appear in more niche news outlets. They get overlooked and forgotten relative to pieces like Ms. Song’s, which get parroted ad nauseam and without question. Ms. Song knows her unbalanced and specious output unravels upon closer examination. What’s tragic is that folks like her know this and do it anyway: she declined an invitation to explain and defend her work on the Bionic Planet podcast hosted by Steve Zwick, editor of Forest Trends’ Ecosystem Marketplace.

Anyway… our piece below was once again published by The Hill, one of Washington’s most respected and influential news outlets. Enjoy!

June 22, 2019

Australian researchers recently warned that without “immediate drastic action,” climate change will degrade our forests, farms, and ecosystems to such a degree that civilization as we know it could collapse as soon as 2050. Such dire climate projections are increasingly common, as is unwarranted cynicism about climate solutions.

The Paris Climate Agreement, for example, coordinates and accelerates national climate action plans, but it’s dismissed for not dictating those plans itself. The Green New Deal is designed to generate an action plan for the U.S., but it’s dismissed as pie in the sky. Efforts to end deforestation are designed to attack its economic roots from multiple angles, but are dismissed as messy and imperfect. It’s enough to make concerned citizens feel like we’re part of some global experiment in learned helplessness.

The dire climate warnings may be justified, but the growing cynicism about solutions reflects a lack of understanding about what works and what doesn’t, rather than futility of the solutions themselves. At least some of what we’re doing has worked on a small scale, and is likely to work on a large scale.

California has the largest economy of any U.S. state and achieved some of the deepest emissions cuts through a range of measures including renewables, efficiency and a forest carbon offset program which works and could be expanded through a new Tropical Forest Standard. Four other states passed 100 percent clean electricity measures with tight timelines for eliminating fossil fuels, including a “superb” one in Washington state (which includes carbon offsets among many other tools) signed by Governor and presidential candidate Jay Inslee. Inslee also just announced a sweeping plan to revamp U.S. foreign policy to fight climate change globally, including reengaging the Paris Agreement.

Trump’s disengagement notwithstanding, the Paris Agreement is progressing as designed, with at least 80 countries soon to announce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets exceeding their 2015 commitments. Half of them use carbon finance mechanisms including carbon offsets to fund better management of their forests, farms, and fields for lower emissions.

That’s key, because up to about 30 percent of global GHG comes from agriculture and the forests chopped to make way for it. With climate-smart agriculture, we can turn those carbon emitters into carbon sinks and take the pressure off forests, but it requires costly improvements in operations and restructuring of rural economies.

That’s where carbon finance comes in. Ethiopia’s Climate Resilient Green Economy initiative, for example, uses development aid tied to emission reductions to improve the resiliency of farms so that farmers don’t expand into forests. India’s Khasi Hills carbon offset program uses carbon offsets to protect forests by helping 62 villages across 67,000 acres shift from slash-and-burn open grazing of cows and goats to more sustainable stall-fed pigs and chickens. The lions’ share of the carbon revenues go directly to the farmers and community members, 80 percent of whom would otherwise live on less than $2 a day.

Although the money in these examples comes from different sources (pay-for-success vs. offsetting), both reduce GHG emissions by helping farmers manage their land more efficiently, both link the payments the GHG reductions, and both are partly financed by something called “REDD+.”

It stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, plus conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.” It’s an umbrella term for various mechanisms enabling governments, farmers and foresters to earn money by managing their land in ways that either absorb more or emit less GHG than they would otherwise.

Some of the methodologies REDD+ relies on originated (ironically) in time-tested quantitative methods which timber traders use to negotiate deals, and which planning agencies now use to project changes in land use. These techniques evolved despite a surprising lack of consensus on what constitutes a forest, given wide variations in tree height, density, carbon sequestration, and human encroachment.

Such things need rigorous definitions, and the scientific debate around them recently reached a milestone, when the Accountability Framework Initiative (AFi) unveiled a new global consensus on what a forest is, what deforestation is, and how forests impacts can be measured.

Mainstream media didn’t cover it, and that’s part of the problem: It tends to ‘ignore the forest for the trees,’ passing over this level of scientific rigor and careful definitions to seek out the conflict story. The rigor of REDD+ methodologies or AFi’s work doesn’t get much attention outside the specialized “trade” press, yet mainstream media have eagerly and often unfairly panned REDD+ and carbon offset projects for “putting a price on nature,” or promoting “climate colonialism,” or letting wealthy polluters off the hook instead of stopping GHG emissions at the source. Sometimes they publish factually-challenged “exposés” without ever diving into the nitty-gritty of how REDD+ works, citing a token sample of unrepresentative projects to conclude the whole field is fatally flawed.

There’s insufficient space here for rebuttals (one of us posted one here), but the larger point is recognizing the misconceptions that lead to such errors. One misconception is seeing REDD+ as a standalone intervention. In fact, it’s a small part of a broader, holistic approach needed to fight climate change and deforestation. We have to eat less beef, and we also have to finance sustainable agriculture as in the Ethiopian and Indian examples above.

Another misconception is that deforestation halted in one place simply migrates down the road — an effect known as “leakage.” It does happen — and gets duly accounted for when it occurs. But taking leakage as a wholesale indictment of REDD+ is a misunderstanding of how sustainable production works.

Sustainable producers manage their land to grow food and support livelihoods without churning through topsoil or cutting forests. When properly implemented, such practices tend to get picked up and copied by neighboring producers. But implementing them costs money and requires investment and training. For example, land managers who want to produce pulp and timber sustainably under Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification face prohibitively higher costs than the bad guys. REDD+ financing can level the playing field and help scale up FSC production, so it’s a big, net gain for the climate.

Sound complicated? No more so than college football, yet no shortage of reporters cover that. For decades media and policy discourse often failed to grasp, let alone explain to mass audiences, the enormity of the climate problem. Let’s not make the same mistake on solutions.

Steve Zwick is the Managing Editor of Ecosystem Marketplace, a web-based information platform which publishes newsletters, breaking news, original feature articles and major reports about market-based approaches to conserving ecosystem services.

Tim Whitley is the founder and CEO of Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty (COTAP), a 501(c)3 public charity that sells offsets from certified forestry projects in least-developed regions which create transparent and accountable earnings for rural farming communities where income levels are less than $2 per day.

About The Hill

The Hill, which is known among those who influence policy as a “must read” in print and online, serves to connect the political players, define the issues, and influence the way Washington’s decision-makers view the debate. Since its launch in 1994, The Hill has been the newspaper for and about Congress, breaking stories from Capitol Hill, K Street and the White House. The Hill stands alone in signaling the important issues of the moment by delivering solid, non-partisan and objective reporting on the business of Washington, covering the inner-workings of Congress, as well as the nexus between politics and business.

Green Old Deal: Why Carbon Offsets Matter More Than Ever

March 29th, 2019

This story first appeared on The Hill and is also cross-posted on Ecosystem Marketplace.

March 29, 2019

The Green New Deal is a bold and controversial legislative resolution that seeks to simultaneously tackle both climate change and economic inequality.  Since 2011, we’ve been empowering individuals and organizations to address their unavoidable carbon emissions through certified forestry projects which create income for rural communities in areas where earnings are typically less than $2/day.

So, we decided to write an op-ed to chime in on the public discussion of the Green New Deal in order to emphasize that its core concept is not new and, more importantly, to explain how what we do fits in.  Our piece below was published by The Hill, one of Washington’s most respected and influential news outlets.

The Green New Deal was voted down in the Senate, but lives on in a changed conversation about climate policy, including among its critics. Many floated policy ideas they thought would work better or be more enactable. Others focused on what they think a deal should exclude. A big target of their fire has been carbon market mechanisms, especially carbon offsets. But offsets are a necessary part of any comprehensive approach to fighting climate change.

They have been around since the 1990s. Recently demand for offsets has risen fast, and could rise faster if federal or state climate legislation created compliance markets for them. Voluntary carbon markets are relatively small, and voluntary carbon offsets cut less than two tenths of a percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions — but in a larger compliance market, where offsets help meet climate policy requirements, they could cut orders of magnitude more.

Some argued offsets should be off the table in a Green New Deal, claiming they are a license to pollute, don’t offer tangible emissions reduction, and can be exploitative toward developing countries.

The reality is complex — suffice to say the critics in many cases have been right. But they should not prevail, because excluding offsets won’t help the climate, whereas scaling up high-quality offsets will. We’ll make faster progress on emissions with them than without them.

Disney, Microsoft, Lyft and other major companies rely on offsets to cut net emissions. Etsy just became the first global e-commerce company to announce it will offset all its emissions from shipping. Cynics view offsetting corporate emissions as a cop-out. Offsets don’t stop GHG emissions at their source, so they don’t counteract giant companies’ emissions, they claim.

But there’s evidence that companies that use offsets aren’t trying to buy their way out of reducing emissions, they’re buying in. Studies show they consistently do more to reduce emissions than companies that don’t offset. There’s also evidence offsets really do counteract purchasers’ emissions. California got blowback for including forest offsets in its GHG reduction program, yet a Stanford study found they worked, cutting carbon emissions more than 25 million tons.

Globally, preserving and restoring forests could cut GHG more than eliminating all cars on earth. The UN climate process has stressed the need for carbon-negative strategies that effectively remove carbon from the atmosphere in order to draw emissions down faster. High-tech interventions like carbon capture and storage need decades and massive investment to scale up — but forests are nature’s original carbon-negative strategy, inexpensive, here and now. Offsets are the key to financing more of them.

Also, many types of GHG emissions — like air travel — can’t be stopped at the source. Plane exhaust is a big part of companies’ carbon footprints and there’s currently no way to fly without spewing it. Aviation emissions account for 5 percent of atmospheric warming, and are rising fast along with demand for air travel.

The Green New Deal FAQ mentioned scaling up high-speed rail so flying wasn’t necessary. When opponents seized on that, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scrambled to deny she wanted to ground planes or outlaw private jets. But short of that, offsets are currently about the only way to mitigate growing aviation emissions.

That’s why Bernie Sanders just pledged to offset his air travel on the campaign trail, and why the International Civil Aviation Organization requires airlines to buy offsets.

A group of climate scientists wrote recently that unless the offsets support other GHG reduction that wouldn’t happen otherwise, offsets won’t compensate for rising aviation emissions — but the scientists also said offsets with “robust criteria” would work and would compensate for rising emissions.

Some offsets are more robust than others. To be effective, they must be “additional” (i.e., enable GHG reduction that wouldn’t have happened without them), quantifiable and verified by accredited third parties. Some offer other valuable benefits besides cutting emissions: reducing non-GHG pollution, alleviating poverty, or improving water and soil quality, biodiversity, food security and human health. Today, plenty of reputable offset providers meet these tests.

During the Green New Deal debate, some vehemently rejected carbon offsets as climate colonialism exploiting indigenous and rural communities. It’s true — and reprehensible — that some forest offset projects have threatened residents with relocation or disrupted livelihoods. Other projects that tout “net positive community impacts” like “well-being” or “capacity building” or “expanding knowledge” can be squishy and unimpressive when it comes to showing how much cash they put into local residents’ pockets.

But these failings don’t typify the field. Offsets — when done right — genuinely enhance lives and livelihoods in rural communities. For example, Plan Vivo certifies offsets in parts of the world where incomes are under $2 a day. It requires that rural communities own their own offset projects and local residents receive at least 60 percent of all carbon revenues, so the money goes where it’s needed most.

A Plan Vivo forest offset project in Nicaragua generates direct payments to local farmers of about $300,000 a year. Another in Uganda, Trees for Global Benefits (full disclosure: my organization sells carbon offsets that fund it) has paid local households $2.5 million — the only cash income some of them have.

The money translates to improved human as well as forest health. Cash enables households to install running water and purification systems or qualify for loans to pay for medical care they wouldn’t otherwise get. TGB also protects medicinal tree species, including the African cherry Prunus africana, an active ingredient in prostate treatments.

Climate scientists and economists know that well designed, accountable forest offsets work. They also know that they have a perception problem. A group of them studied it, and found people see forest offsets more positively once they learn they’re cost-efficient at sequestering carbon. But their view of offsets doesn’t improve when shown how they also reliably cut emissions and confer other benefits like health outcomes.

Public perception should catch up to the reality. Our policy discourse is getting clearer about the imperative to connect climate action to social and economic justice. Our views on carbon offsets should, too.

They aren’t a panacea, or a substitute for stopping emissions at the source, and they’re not immune to abuses, but carbon offsets are still indispensable for cutting emissions and empowering people.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to clarify the medical use of Prunus africana.

Tim Whitley is the founder and CEO of Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty (COTAP), a 501(c)3 public charity that sells offsets from certified forestry projects in least-developed regions which create transparent and accountable earnings for rural farming communities where income levels are less than $2 per day.

About The Hill

The Hill, which is known among those who influence policy as a “must read” in print and online, serves to connect the political players, define the issues, and influence the way Washington’s decision-makers view the debate.  Since its launch in 1994, The Hill has been the newspaper for and about Congress, breaking stories from Capitol Hill, K Street and the White House.  The Hill stands alone in signaling the important issues of the moment by delivering solid, non-partisan and objective reporting on the business of Washington, covering the inner-workings of Congress, as well as the nexus between politics and business.

COTAP featured on OZY

April 20th, 2018

OZY media covers COTAP April 2018

An OZY piece titled “Americans on Climate Change: All Talk, Little Action” includes a candid interview with COTAP founder Tim Whitley about some of the challenges individuals face when seeking to reduce their carbon emissions. The article also includes highlights from an OZY & SurveyMonkey poll of nearly 4,000 American adults about their climate actions.

COTAP and Expedia covered by GreenBiz & Sustainable Brands

August 15th, 2017

GreenBiz and Sustainable Brands cover COTAP's partnership with Expedia

On August 2, COTAP issued a press release about working with Expedia, which became the first Fortune 500 company to choose carbon offsets which directly share 60% of revenues with people who live on less than $2/day.  The news was covered by both GreenBiz and Sustainable Brands, two of the longest-standing and most respected news organizations covering (you guessed it!) green and sustainable business.

Sustainable Brands’ August 3rd coverage was titled “Expedia Combating Poverty, Climate Change with Revenue-Sharing Carbon Offset Program.”

GreenBiz Editorial Director Heather Clancy interviewed COTAP founder Tim Whitley about how we can make carbon offsets go miles further. The 35 minute interview appeared in the GreenBiz 350 Podcast on August 11th. On Monday August 14th, we were the GreenBiz’ lead story titled “Why travel giant Expedia paid a premium for these carbon offsets.”

Press Release – With Carbon Offsets To Alleviate Poverty, Expedia combats economic inequality and climate change together

August 2nd, 2017

Becomes the first Fortune 500 company to choose carbon offsets which directly share 60% of revenues with people who live on less than $2/day.

[Oakland, California – August 2, 2017] To reduce global economic inequality along with greenhouse gas emissions from its corporate travel, global travel industry leader Expedia, Inc. has invested in four community-owned carbon offset projects from the global non-profit Carbon Offsets to Alleviate Poverty (

COTAP’s carbon offset projects counteract emissions through tree planting, agroforestry and forest protection. They are all located in areas where income levels are less than $2 per day, and are certified under Plan Vivo, the world’s longest-standing voluntary standard for forest carbon. Plan Vivo stipulates not only that rural communities actually own their projects, but also that they receive at least 60% of all carbon revenues.

“One of Expedia’s core Corporate Social Responsibility values is climate action, so there was really was no question about whether or not working with COTAP made sense. Travel is a large contributor to carbon emissions and given that we are in the business of travel anything we can do to help alleviate the impact we’re on board. We are very excited to be working with COTAP and look forward to what we can accomplish together,” said Tony Donohoe, SVP and CTO, Expedia Worldwide Engineering at Expedia, Inc.

The Paris climate agreement included provisions designed to boost carbon trading markets and carbon offsets. Yet US withdrawal from Paris may not slow carbon offset use by US companies. Many are using them to meet state emissions reductions obligations, and there’s a global trend toward leading companies adopting carbon net-zero or carbon net-positive emissions policies that seek to mitigate direct and even indirect GHG emissions through clean energy and carbon offsets.

Corporate travel often accounts for a large part of a company’s emissions, which carbon offsets can counteract.  Major companies which have recently announced initiatives to use carbon offsets for corporate travel include retailer, business software giant SAP and car rental leader Hertz, to name a few. But Expedia, whose 2016 revenues exceeded $8.7 billion, is the first Fortune 500 company to work with COTAP to offset its corporate travel, ensuring that the majority of its payment goes directly to those who need it most.

“By offsetting through COTAP, Expedia is creating over $5.00 per tonne in direct, life-changing income for the world’s poorest people,” said Tim Whitley, COTAP founder. “This unsurpassed level of direct carbon revenue sharing is made possible by the combination of Plan Vivo’s 60% community revenue sharing requirement, the premium price of $9 per tonne COTAP pays projects, and our modest and transparent margin of 9.1%. Our projects create other indirect co-benefits like improved food security, biodiversity, soil quality, and reduced erosion.  But income is the ultimate benefit because beneficiaries can use it to pay for income-generating assets, medical treatment, food, or their children’s school fees.”

Through donations to COTAP, Expedia offset 1,010 tonnes worth of carbon emissions, which it is using to address air travel emissions from a large meeting involving leaders from many of Expedia’s locations around the world. The donated funds will be distributed evenly among COTAP’s partner projects in India, Malawi, Nicaragua and Uganda, with cash payments directly shared with smallholder farmers and forest communities there.

There’s vast potential for major companies to leverage their sustainability programs to fight poverty and climate change together as Expedia is doing, aligning their interests with smallholders, communities and local environments in developing countries. By working with COTAP, Expedia is leading on that front and demonstrating a transparent, scalable way forward.

The total volume of voluntary offset emissions reductions is still small compared to the scale of emissions reductions needed to combat climate change, but according to a recent Ecosystem Marketplace report, voluntary markets leverage an outsized impact on compliance markets and on emissions reductions activities in general. The total market value of carbon offsets fluctuates with prices. Last year it was nearly $200 million, but using premium offsets such as COTAP’s would drive it higher, and vulnerable communities would capture a lot more of that value.

“We are pleased that Expedia has decided to support Plan Vivo projects in giving rural communities the tools to shape their own sustainable futures,” said Plan Vivo Foundation Programme Manager Eva Schoof. “To date these projects have channeled about $10 million and counting to rural communities, funding long-term sustainable livelihood activities that have an impact beyond carbon payments.”

“Offsets from our program result in direct cash payments and long-term income opportunities for farmers in the poorest parts of the world who are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change,” said Kahlil Baker, co-founder and executive director of CommuniTree, COTAP’s project partner in Nicaragua. “There is a strong multiplier effect from those payments because farmers regularly reinvest that money back into their farms to grow their incomes even further.”

“Expedia’s carbon offset purchases will help fund small community development grants to over 60 villages,” said Mark Poffenberger, head of the Technical Advisory Committee to the Khasi Hills India Community REDD+ Project, COTAP’s project partner in India, and a trustee of the Plan Vivo Foundation. “Most villages use their payment for protecting and restoring their forests to improve the village drinking water system.  The funds also support community forest fire control and replanting that results in improved watershed health and more secure drinking water supplies.”

“Expedia’s support will fund performance-based payments that have been structured to allow farmers to consider long-term investment horizons, using part of their land to develop carbon offsets as an asset,” said Pauline Nantongo Kalunda, executive director of Ecotrust, COTAP’s project partner in Uganda. “That not only provides short-term cash and needed livelihood inputs but also long-term benefits from materials and income that can be enjoyed in the future. By channeling the funds through Village Savings & Loans Associations, funds are available for all community members to access loans.  Moreover, the carbon farmers are able to use their purchase agreements as collateral for loans and use the subsequent payments to offset the loans.”

COTAP community-owned carbon offset projects serve and connect key UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 1, ending poverty, and Goal 13, taking action on climate change, as well as enhancing food security, fighting deforestation, boosting sustainable growth and employment, and protecting ecosystems and biodiversity. They’re also examples of how the private sector and communities in developing countries can work together to help meet global emissions reduction goals. Expanding voluntary carbon markets and using carbon offsets were topics discussed in a recent UN intersessional meeting in Bonn, Germany on implementing the Paris climate agreement.

Companies of any size, and individuals anywhere in the world, can follow Expedia’s example by working with COTAP to offset as little as 1 tonne of carbon emissions.  In the U.S., individuals can deduct COTAP offsetting on their income taxes. Expedia, Inc.’s donation also gives its more than 20,000 employees worldwide access to COTAP’s Employee Offset Matching Program, via Expedia’s philanthropic arm Expedia Cares. The program enables participating employees to double the amount of carbon emissions they can offset and halve their effective rate to a tax-deductible $4.95 per tonne, while still maintain the $9 per tonne premium which COTAP projects receive. At, employees can calculate their carbon footprint, learn how to reduce it, and offset any dollar amount or tonnage quantity.