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And NPR news team recently traveled through the Amazon, reporting on deforestation linked to climate change, and they wondered about a side effect. Their travel burned fossil fuels, as travel nearly always does. It raised a question they put to Stacey Vanek Smith of NPR's Planet Money podcast.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: All told, NPR correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, producer Lauren Migaki and the rest of the team traveled more than 15,000 miles to see the disappearing rainforest up close. And they started to worry that, in reporting on climate change, they had actually made the problem worse.
LAUREN MIGAKI, BYLINE: And then when we came to the conclusion that we might be contributing to that in some way, we were pretty depressed.
SMITH: So they checked out a few carbon offset programs. Here's how these services work. They tally up the carbon you've used in your travels and charge you to take that carbon out of the atmosphere, but the team was left with a question.
MIGAKI: Does carbon offsetting actually work? Can we pay our way out of our carbon footprint for this trip?
SMITH: I had my mission. The first thing I did was track down Sheryl Sturges. She invented carbon offsets.
SHERYL STURGES: I guess you could say that.
STURGES: It sounds like a very big claim, but I was the one who had the idea, so maybe yes.
SMITH: In 1987, Sturges worked for AES, an energy company. They were about to build a coal plant in Connecticut, but there was a lot of buzz starting about fossil fuels and climate change. And the CEO came to Sturges and asked if there was something they could do to undo the environmental damage of the coal plant.
STURGES: I was so excited. No one had ever asked the question on a commercial level.
SMITH: Sturges started researching, and she came across a scientific paper that involved trees. Trees take in CO2 and use it to grow, so why not plant trees to drink in all the carbon emissions? Sturges thought maybe they could even put a little park around the coal plant. She went to some climate scientists to figure out how many trees it would take.
STURGES: It was 52 million trees.
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 plant would emit in its 40-year lifetime.
SMITH: Fifty-two million trees - so no little park around the coal plant, but it didn't actually matter where the trees went. Carbon goes everywhere. So Sturges found a program that was working with farmers in Guatemala, and AES paid the farmers to grow trees as crops. Farmers got the money. AES offset their carbon and even got a bunch of corporate citizenship awards.
STURGES: We beat out Ben and Jerry that year.
STURGES: Total cost - $2 million. Huge corporations like General Motors and Microsoft dove in, and carbon offsetting quickly became a multibillion-dollar business.
HANNAH WITTMAN: It's like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.
SMITH: Hannah Wittman is a professor at the University of British Columbia.
WITTMAN: A lot of people liken carbon offsets back to the Roman Catholic indulgences. You could just keep doing bad things - i.e., keep emitting carbon and just paying the charge back for it.
SMITH: Wittman says carbon offsets give us an excuse not to change our behavior, and that is what really needs to happen. Also, she says, they often don't work. The trees die, or they don't get planted at all. You have to choose your offset carefully. But in the case of our NPR reporters, Wittman says get the offsets. Just try to travel less in the future. So I added up the mileage, and to offset the trip, our reporters would need to plant 88 trees at a total cost of about $50. I called up Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Lauren Migaki with the news.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Wow. I would pay 50 bucks to feel slightly less bad about this.
MIGAKI: I would pay 50 bucks too. I'm going to start doing this whenever I travel.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, Lauren - 25 bucks each? You do 25. I do 25.
MIGAKI: Yeah, sure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK, split it.
SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.