In 2017, Duke University and its athletics division took enough business-related flights to generate around 5,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. One round-trip, cross-country flight between Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, where the University is based, and the West Coast nets out to around .6 metric tons of CO2, but for universities and their teams and staff, nonstop travel is inevitable.
But the environmental footprint doesn’t have to be. Duke just announced a partnership with Delta Airlines, its travel provider, in which they will purchase enough carbon offsets to balance out their 2017 emissions. A single carbon offset represents one metric ton of greenhouse gases; the purchase of carbon offsets generally goes toward financing energy efficiency projects around the world, from wind and solar installations to reforestation efforts.
The issue with purchasing offsets, though, is it can all be a little abstract. If a company like Delta, for instance, buys a certain sum of offsets–which they often do; in 2017 alone the airline purchased 2.5 million–they’re guaranteed an emissions reduction, but where and how that reduction is accomplished is often removed from a company’s operations. Most of Delta’s offsetting purchases, which they’ve been making since 2012 in an effort to keep the company’s emissions below that year’s level, have funded reforestation efforts overseas, says Christine Boucher, Delta’s managing director for global environment and sustainability.
So in deciding how to source the offsets for the Duke-Delta purchase, the two entities turned to a North Carolina-based startup aiming to ensure that carbon offset purchases also have a tangible local effect. Called Urban Offsets, the startup acts as something of an intermediary between organizations or companies looking to purchase carbon offsets, and the larger carbon marketplace. Urban Offsets, says CEO Shawn Gagné, vets and rates carbon offsetting opportunities, and helps potential purchasers select those that align with their sustainability efforts. But there’s another layer: Each offset purchased through Urban Offsets is part of what the startup terms a “carbon community bundle”–a concept they created last summer that means that each purchase also helps fund local urban reforestation efforts. “So now, when people buy offsets from us, we’ll plant and care for trees in places where companies operate, and where their employees and customers live,” Gagné says.
To carry out the tree-planting portion of the bundle, Urban Offsets also coordinates partnerships with on-the-ground agencies in the 12 U.S. markets in which the startup currently operates. Generally, they’ll either partner with a nonprofit like they’ve done in New York, where their work with the New York Restoration Project is helping bring about the city’s One Million Trees initiative, or they’ll work with the local government’s forestry division.
For the Delta-Duke partnership, the “carbon community bundle” will both support a landfill gas capture project in North Carolina, and also finance the planting of 1,000 trees in the Raleigh-Durham area, with the support of the local nonprofit Keep Durham Beautiful. Employees from Delta and Duke will gather in the area in late February to do the planting (part of the appeal for Delta, Boucher says, is the opportunity for employees “to get their hands dirty” making good on the company’s sustainability promises). And over half of the trees will take root in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the area–which, as a 2016 Duke Nicholas School of the Environment report discovered, were deprived of forestry during the 1930s, when racially motivated redlining resulted in trees being clustered in white, wealthy neighborhoods.
Linking urban forestry with more commonplace carbon offsetting measures, Gagné says, is intended to drive investments toward a community asset “that only provides intangible benefits, and as such is always treated as an expense, not a necessity.” While anyone who’s walked down a leafy urban street can likely feel the benefits of the shade, aesthetics, and shelter from noise pollution, those benefits all exist outside the formal economy, and, as in Raleigh-Durham, are largely concentrated in neighborhoods that are already advantaged. There’s not often adequate investment or funding, Gagné says, for cities and nonprofits to carry out their urban forestry efforts to the extent that they would like to.
That’s why it’s significant that Delta–and perhaps eventually, other big global players–are taking this partnership model to both achieving their carbon offset goals and making an impact in communities. “The trees are the anchor of everything in sustainability,” Gagné says. “They’re this tangible item with a real, local effect that was missing from carbon markets all along.”