What are carbon offsets and how might they help save more environmental lands in Hillsborough?
A few months back, I spoke with Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill about the county’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. At the time, the program, known as ELAPP, was running out of money, even though voters in 2008 overwhelmingly approved $200 million in new borrowing to purchase and preserve more environmentally sensitive lands.
Merrill discussed the need to create revenue streams to support the program, instead of the county just tapping into its general fund to pay for it. One promising option he discussed was carbon offsets.
The concept of carbon offsets or credits was foreign to me. Essentially, Merrill said, there are some companies and organizations looking to meet self-imposed social responsibility objectives. Those companies could pay the county to set aside and preserve untouched land — meaning they won’t turn into roads or developments, and will maintain the natural plant life that effectively turns carbon dioxide into oxygen — essentially offsetting some or all of the carbon footprint created by the company.
It’s a novel idea, but would it work?
The superb team of economic reporters for NPR’s Planet Money podcast recently took a look at the history of carbon offsets and some of the research into their effectiveness. It's really insightful. The episode was inspired by some NPR reporters who wanted to see if there was a way to offset the carbon footprint of their trip to Amazon to report on the environment because, ironically, they felt that their journey used up a lot of fossil fuels.
Not surprising, they found that carbon offsets are a mixed bag. The effort has netted some positive results, but it might inspire people and companies to pollute more because they believe there's an easy way to offset it. And there were other adverse, unforseen side effects.
One of the more interesting stats from the episode: More than 50 million trees needed to be planted to offset the carbon eminated from a single coal plant.
It was an interesting podcast and an issue worth learning more about if Hillsborough decides to go that route. You can listen to the full episode here.