Lisa Song, Investigative Reporter, Pro Publica - Do Carbon Offsets Work?

Lisa Song, Investigative Reporter, Pro Publica
Do Carbon Offsets Work?


“I told me so.”

One has those moments.  Of sublime self-congratulation: “I knew that!”

My poor brain could never wrap itself around the idea of carbon offsets, of a global market for guilt-relief, generating funds for doing good by selling the right to keep doing bad things to our environment.

The goal of carbon offsets is noble, and damn necessary to sustain the human habitat on Planet Earth, preserving natural forests to capture carbon from the air for climate protection.  And the idea that polluters should pay for trees to go un-cut has a certain rough justice to it.

The process, though, always got on my nerves, setting a price for virtue, balancing the value of carbon-eating trees against the exhaust of a dozen coal-fired power plants. Its bottom line was pointless, since the offset was meant to justify, not reduce the amount of emissions.

It is nice of the energy companies to pay for our ticket to environmental Hell, but it would be better if they kept their money in their pockets and their coal, oil and gas in the ground.

But when I told myself all this, I hardly knew the half of it – that the balance was out of whack, that the valuation of the carbon being removed by the forest was likely bogus, based on bad or incomplete data, and that the protections offset money buys can be ripped away by bad storms of worse politics. The bottom line on carbon offsets our guest, investigative reporter Lisa Song of ProPublica, found was, “In case after case, … carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with. The polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO₂, but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last.”



Lisa Song reports on the environment, energy and climate change.

She joined ProPublica in 2017 after six years at InsideClimate News, where she covered climate science and environmental health. She was part of the reporting team that revealed Exxon’s shift from conducting global warming research to supporting climate denial, a series that was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for public service. From 2013-2014 she reported extensively on air pollution from Texas’ oil and gas boom as part of a collaboration between several newsrooms. Lisa is a co-author of “The Dilbit Disaster,” which won a Pulitzer for national reporting. She has degrees in earth science and science writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



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