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Climate Change: Carbon Offset Program

Frequently Asked Questions

With the rise in awareness and concern about the effects of climate change, voluntary carbon offset programs have begun to proliferate in the United States and around the world. Such programs vary greatly in terms of their methodologies and offerings.

There are many different types of carbon offset programs. We are providing answers to frequently asked questions so that you can understand exactly what The Nature Conservancy’s voluntary carbon offset program is about. If you have any additional questions, concerns, or comments about the offset program, please don’t hesitate to contact us and tell us what you think about climate change, forest carbon projects, and the carbon market.

How can I be sure these projects are sequestering and preventing the release of the amount of carbon you say they are?

What exactly are the voluntary carbon offsets The Nature Conservancy is offering?


Will voluntary carbon offsets solve climate change?


Do my offset contributions support a particular project?

Why do different offset programs charge different amounts for a ton of carbon?

I've heard carbon offsets don’t really help mitigate climate change. Why should I contribute to a carbon offset program?

Are these offsets verified by a third-party? What type of standards are you following?

How can I be sure that the carbon that you say you will capture will really be stored?

Is the Conservancy committed to the projects in the offset program far into the future?

What happens if the forest burns down or some other catastrophic event occurs?

Won’t forest offsets distract us from fossil fuel emissions reductions?

How would passage of a cap-and-trade bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions change the carbon market?

How can I be sure these projects are sequestering and preventing the release of the amount of carbon you say they are?

In order for a forest carbon project to help reduce the buildup of carbon pollution that is causing climate change, it must address certain issues, including:

  • Permanence, which, simply stated, is the life of the project. It wouldn’t help to reduce climate change much if a tree were planted or saved one year only to be cut the next. The most desirable forest carbon projects are those where the restored and protected forests are likely to remain intact indefinitely.
  • Additionality, which refers to the amount of carbon dioxide captured, stored or prevented from reaching the atmosphere compared to what would happen without the project. In other words, is this something that would have happened anyway?
  • Leakage, which occurs when emissions avoided within a site are not eliminated, but rather displaced to another location, or when carbon capture and storage at a site leads to land clearing elsewhere.
  • Measurement and monitoring, which entails periodic field measurements of forest growth and associated capture and storage of carbon, as well as, in some cases, analysis of satellite imagery and models of forest growth and deforestation.
  • Verification, of carbon benefits by an accredited independent third-party, which occurs periodically throughout the life of a project to ensure it meets its intended goals of carbon storage and that all additionality, measurement, leakage and permanence requirements are being met.

The projects in the Conservancy’s offset program address these issues in the following ways:

  • Permanence — The Conservancy utilizes various legal strategies to ensure projects are protected over the long term. One example of such a safeguard is the use of conservation easements (where such instruments exist and make sense) on project lands which restrict the property to forest land uses and require maintenance of strict conservation values. Another example is working with governments and local stakeholders to turn properties into legally protected areas or national parks. All strategies will ensure that the land will remain forested for future generations.

In addition, the Conservancy withholds a percentage of the carbon offsets from each project entered into the voluntary carbon offset program, and does not take contributions for these offsets. These withheld offsets are reserved in a buffer account, in order to compensate for any unanticipated loss of verified carbon benefits, due to natural hazards or human caused events down the road. For instance, if carbon emissions result from the damage or death of trees due to an ice storm, flood, fire, or other natural event, offsets in the buffer will replace those previously verified offsets whose benefits were negated due to the emissions returned to the atmosphere from damage.

  • Additionality — The forest protection and restoration projects The Nature Conservancy carries out are not business-as-usual activities. In each project we calculate the carbon emissions or carbon storage that would have occurred without the project (known as the baseline or the business-as-usual scenario) and subtract that from the carbon emissions or carbon storage expected in the with-project scenario to determine the carbon benefits.
  • Leakage — The Nature Conservancy tries to design projects so-as to minimize the likelihood of displacing carbon emissions. Where it is impossible to avoid displacement of carbon emissions, the Conservancy discounts the carbon benefits from forest carbon projects from the outset.
  • Measurement and monitoring —Field measurements of forest growth and carbon stocks are undertaken on a periodic basis and are based upon well-established forest inventory and scientific principles.
  • Verification — Local Conservancy stewardship staff ensure that the projects are being implemented successfully. Staff measure carbon storage for every project within the carbon offset program on a periodic basis for expected carbon sequestration performance goals. An accredited third party then verifies all calculations and methods used to determine the carbon benefits of the project. 

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What exactly are the carbon offsets The Nature Conservancy is offering?

When you contribute to the Conservancy’s voluntary carbon offset program you are helping fund Nature Conservancy projects that are specifically designed to prevent the emissions of carbon dioxide or capture and store carbon and thus, help reduce the build up of greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. When you make a contribution, your money will support projects that protect standing forests, improve forest management and plant trees where forests once existed, as well as measure and verify the amount of carbon that they store over time. 

By using The Conservancy’s carbon footprint calculator, you can measure your “carbon footprint” (how many tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases your lifestyle creates each year), and then contribute to offset all or a portion of that carbon footprint through the Conservancy’s program. 

Users may choose to offset their carbon footprint via a one-time contribution, or choose to contribute to the voluntary carbon offset program through monthly installments.

Remember that the first and most important step we can take to help fight climate change is to make choices that will reduce our overall emissions. But voluntary carbon offsets are a supplemental way of making a difference that can further help reduce the buildup of carbon pollution that is causing climate change. 

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Will voluntary carbon offsets alone solve climate change?

No one program alone can solve climate change. The use of carbon offsets contributes to the comprehensive changes society must make to begin reducing the buildup of carbon pollution that is causing climate change. One way we can help fight climate change is to make choices about our homes, our travel, the food we eat, what we buy and throw away and the policy decisions we support that will reduce our overall emissions.

By contributing to the Conservancy’s voluntary carbon offset program you will be joining with a community of individuals to make a difference in the buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

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Do my offset contributions help support actual projects?

Yes, contributions to the voluntary carbon offset program benefit real on-the-ground conservation projects with verifiable carbon benefits. The first project in the voluntary carbon offset program was the Tensas River Basin Reforestation Project in the Lower Mississippi River Valley. Through the project, the Conservancy reforested private lands to capture and store carbon and restore critical habitat to native species in an area that is important for conservation. Given the generous financial support for this project by Delta Air Lines, Delta Air Lines customers and other Conservancy supporters, through the voluntary carbon offsets program, the Tensas River Project has been successfully replanted and permanently protected, while also providing a means for contributors to offset their carbon footprint. Having achieved success at Tensas River, we have retired the project from the voluntary carbon offset program in order to provide donors an opportunity to support new carbon offset projects where financial support is currently more urgently needed.

Two examples of such projects are the Rio Bravo Climate Action Project in Belize and the Valdivian Coastal Reserve Project in Chile. You can find out more details about the Rio Bravo Climate Action Project and Valdivian Coastal Reserve Project by reading our project profiles. 

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Why do different offset programs charge different amounts for offsets?

Numerous organizations offer carbon offsets, and the offset pricing offered by these organizations may vary from the Conservancy’s requested contribution on a per offset basis. The Conservancy’s offset pricing reflects the significant cost of designing and implementing projects to meet the most rigorous possible carbon accounting standards in the market. Furthermore, the Conservancy often incurs additional ecological planning and monitoring costs that are necessary to ensure the measureable biodiversity conservation co-benefits common to all Conservancy forest carbon offset projects, co-benefits which set the Conservancy’s projects apart from the offset projects available from many other organizations.

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I’ve heard carbon offsets don’t really help mitigate climate change. Why should I contribute to the Conservancy’s voluntary carbon offset program?

Contributing to the Conservancy’s voluntary carbon offset program will have a verifiable impact on reducing the buildup of carbon pollution, and will help restore and protect critical habitat around the world.

Because there is not a required common standard for the voluntary carbon market the quality of offsets can vary widely. This variance has led to increased scrutiny and skepticism, and we agree that there are concerns that can and must be addressed to produce verifiable carbon offsets. The Nature Conservancy’s carbon offset program produces verifiable reductions in carbon emissions and increases in carbon sequestration. These projects are critically important to establishing confidence in markets where forests are valued for the carbon they store and the habitats and natural services — such as healthy watersheds — they provide. In developing this program, we have done significant work to assure that the offsets we offer meet exceptionally high standards of quality.

However, contributing to a carbon offset program is not an adequate substitute for making lifestyle changes that will significantly reduce the emissions your activities produce.

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Are these offsets verified by a third-party? What type of standards are you following?

The Conservancy program has been designed and implemented by climate change and forest experts with years of experience analyzing, measuring and verifying forest carbon projects. Staff will measure carbon storage for every project within the voluntary carbon offset program for its expected carbon capture and storage performance goals, account for leakage of carbon benefits, and maintain a reserve account to buffer for unexpected carbon losses. The measurements and accounting will be independently verified by an accredited third-party to meet high standards such as the Verified Carbon Standard or the Climate Action Reserve Forest Protocol. All carbon offsets in this program will be retired, so they cannot be double counted.

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How can I be sure that the carbon that you say you will capture will really be stored?

First, we have used the best available forest science, to develop a very sound estimate of the emissions that will be avoided and amount of carbon that will be captured and stored over time, after taking into account natural risks and leakage. As required by the independent carbon standards being used for these projects, these estimates are conservative, in that they likely underestimate the actual carbon benefits, Second, we are conducting forest monitoring to determine the amount of carbon stored in the projects. The results of this monitoring are verified on a periodic basis by accredited third-party auditors.

The Conservancy also utilizes various legal strategies to endure projects are protected over the long term. One example of such a safeguard is the use of conservation easements (where such instruments exist and make sense) on project lands which restrict the property to forest land uses and require maintenance of strict conservation values. Another example is working with governments to turn properties into legally protected areas or national parks. All strategies will ensure that the land will remain forested for future generations.

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Is the Conservancy committed to the projects in the carbon offset program far into the future?

Yes. The Conservancy will maintain a commitment to these projects over the long term, and will measure the carbon capture and storage of the forests. All projects entered into the Conservancy’s voluntary carbon offset program will remain as natural, forested landscapes even after they have met their carbon sequestration goals.

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What happens if the forest burns down or some other catastrophic event occurs?

To help protect the program against such risks, the independent carbon accounting standards that the Conservancy uses, require that a percentage of the carbon offsets verified from each project be set aside in an insurance buffer administered by the carbon accounting standard organization itself, in order to provide a safeguard against catastrophic loss in any one project within their program. In the extremely unlikely case that a project suffers from a catastrophic loss, such as a fire, the reserve pool of carbon offsets will be used to cover the loss.

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Won’t forest carbon offsets distract us from fossil fuel emissions reductions?

The Conservancy believes that reducing fossil fuel emissions is critical to stemming the effects of climate change. We work with governments at state, federal, and international levels to enact laws that would reduce emission levels from all major economic sectors responsible for carbon emissions, including energy, transportation and deforestation.

However, we also recognize that deforestation and forest degradation produce as much as 15 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, forest conservation and restoration must play a meaningful role in any successful effort to avoid dangerous climate change. The Conservancy has unique expertise in reducing emissions from deforestation, improving forest management and restoring forests, and has concentrated much of its efforts to fight climate change in this area. Our voluntary carbon offset program is just one example of this work.

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How would passage of a cap-and-trade bill to limit U.S. carbon emissions change the carbon market?

The current market in which we are offering these offsets is a voluntary market. Contributors to offset programs do so as concerned citizens who want to make a difference in helping to avoid dangerous climate change. Voluntary action is an important avenue that can help to address this far-reaching challenge, but it will not be possible to meet a test of the magnitude posed by climate change without concerted action by businesses and governments, as well as individuals.

Legislation to cap carbon emissions using the market-based “cap-and-trade” approach has been under consideration in the Congress, in many states, and internationally. Some states, for example, in the Northeast and California, have adopted such a program to control emissions from large industrial sources, electric power generation and transportation. Enacting these programs will send a price signal to the market that will place a value on carbon emission reductions and carbon capture and storage. Pricing carbon in this way will direct investments toward a host of activities such as improved energy efficiency, low-carbon technology, and forest conservation and restoration. Without a price on carbon to assure a return on their investment, those who would like to engage in these activities will find it difficult in many cases to attract financing.

Passage of cap-and-trade legislation in the U.S. and more comprehensive coverage of emissions internationally would create a new compliance market that will cover many sources of emissions. Individuals may still wish to offset their emissions and thus it is likely that a voluntary market like the current one would remain, though it is possible that regulatory standards would be set for these markets also.

Depending on how it is designed, such a compliance carbon market could drive billions of dollars per year to forest conservation and restoration in landscapes such as the Lower Mississippi River Valley, the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests of Brazil, Mexico and East Kalimantan in Indonesia, helping to protect and restore millions of acres. The Conservancy’s forest carbon offset program is helping to set the stage for such an outcome by demonstrating how forest carbon projects can work.

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