Some scientists say companies claiming to capture carbon is just smoke and mirrors

ATLANTA — Promising to capture carbon is becoming a new way to capture clients. A lot of companies are touting efforts to cut emissions and add carbon offsets. They are a direct result of consumer demand. But some question if it even works.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Sophia Choi looked into why some scientists say much of it is just smoke and mirrors.

Many companies like Delta and Amazon are advertising their goals of reaching that in the next decade or so. The idea is pretty simple.

You “offset” the carbon you put out by investing in projects that reduce or store it.

Things like windmill farms, planting forests and even capturing the carbon in the air to use in bubbly drinks or building materials.

But some environmental scientists say many of these projects are just a way to fool you and get your business.

You might have seen the ads. One from Delta says the company is investing a billion dollars over the next 10 years to reach carbon neutrality.


“We were hearing from our key stakeholders, our investors, our employees, and our customers that they wanted us to take action now,” Delta’s sustainability director Amelia DeLuca said.

Delta is making real changes to cut emissions like using better fuel, more efficient aircraft and even changing routes.

“If we fly more straight, we’re burning less fuel,” DeLuca said.

But Delta is also investing in forests in Indonesia and Cambodia for carbon offsets. The idea is the trees will absorb carbon in the air, giving Delta credits toward what they burn as they fly around the globe.

“We don’t even really know how to measure CO2 stored underground by, say, trees. No one really knows how to do that,” said Steve Milloy, a lawyer who has researched environmental issues for 30 years.

He runs the website which is critical of carbon offsets.

“What you’re telling the public is, yeah, we’re emitting a lot of carbon dioxide right now. And that sometime in the future, someplace, we’ll be storing that CO2 underground, or somebody will be storing that CO2 underground for us. And the problem with that is, well, the emissions are happening now,” Milloy said.

Dr. Erin Sills, a professor at North Carolina State University, studied carbon offsets.

“In this study, we looked at case study of a set of projects which are designed to reduce carbon emissions and sell carbon offset credits,” Sills said.

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Her analysis: it doesn’t seem to help.

“We did not find much evidence that these individual projects were actually having an impact on reducing deforestation in those project sites,” Sills said.

Yet, companies like Delta and Amazon use offsets to tout efforts toward carbon neutrality. The companies typically use an independent third party to verify them.

“The Nature Conservancy, which is the largest environmental group in the U.S., if not the world, has been caught selling phony carbon credits to big companies like banks, Blackrock, Citibank, Disney.

“So, you know, the fact that they’re certified doesn’t really mean anything,” Milloy said.

Delta says it only uses offsets to complement a whole host of other efforts to cut carbon.

The company is looking at everything, from what you use in an airplane to how you can help.

“I think you’ll see us next year moving back into that space of asking customers to participate with us in our carbon neutral journey,” DeLuca said.

Other companies like Scana Energy are doing the same thing; asking you, the customer, to donate money to help cut carbon.

Sills says consumer interest and company investments in carbon cutting is at least a start.

“And so, investing in these projects is like investing in developing the institutions and the systems to make that part of the climate puzzle work,” Sills said.

But other researchers say until methods are proven to work, carbon offsetting is nothing more than junk science.

“The emissions are now, and the CO2 storage is much later if ever. So, what has been gained? Well, the company has been allowed to greenwash, and I think that’s just a fraud on the public,” Milloy said.