What Are Reforestation Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work: The Big Picture

What Are Reforestation Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work: The Big Picture

By
Grace Smoot

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Reforestation (planting trees) is one of the easiest and most meaningful ways you can help preserve the environment and combat global climate change. They are also a way to combat the loss of millions of acres of forests every year via deforestation. So, we had to ask: What are reforestation carbon offsets really, and could they help us mitigate climate change?

Reforestation carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that focuses on planting trees in recently deforested areas. Reforestation projects reduce CO2 emissions by increasing the number of trees on our planet, which absorb CO2 into their trunks, leaves, and roots as they grow and mature.

Keep reading to find out all about what reforestation carbon offsets are, how they work, what their project life-cycle is, how effective they are, their pros and cons, and how they can help mitigate climate change.

The Big Picture of Reforestation Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets play an important role in mitigating the effects of global climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions beyond what we each can achieve through individual actions. Reforestation carbon offsets are a specific type of tree planting carbon offset that converts recently non-forested land back into forested land.

How are carbon offsets definedReductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere.
What are reforestation carbon offsetsReforestation carbon offsets are a specific type of tree planting carbon offset that focuses on the replanting of trees in recently deforested areas (i.e., converting recently non-forested land back into forest).
How do reforestation projects offset CO2 emissionsReforestation projects reduce CO2 emissions by increasing the number of trees on the planet, which absorb CO2 as they grow and mature.
When do reforestation projects offset CO2 emissionsCarbon emission reductions are delayed when you plant new forests because you have to wait for the trees to reach maturity before they can begin to reduce carbon emissions. This means we must wait decades after planting the tree to begin to reap most of the environmental benefits. 
What is the project life-cycle of reforestation carbon offsetsBuilding: The building of reforestation carbon offsets includes identifying lands in need of reforestation and physically planting the trees.

Operating: The operating and maintaining of reforestation carbon offsets includes any measures taken after planting trees to keep the reforested lands alive and thriving. 

End-of-life: The end-of-life of reforestation carbon offsets would include anything that puts the reforested lands at risk of being destroyed, which hopefully would never occur.
How effective and efficient are reforestation carbon offsetsReforestation offsets are effective because they reinforce our carbon sinks; however, they often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing
Reforestation offsets are efficient because they are relatively cost-effective and continue to avoid CO2 emissions after their project life span; however, they also face carbon storage capacity limitations.
How could you offset your carbon footprint with reforestation carbon offsetsReforestation offsets specifically help mitigate climate change because they plant more trees, and trees remove CO2 from the air as they grow. By increasing the number of trees on our planet, we increase the amount of carbon they are capable of storing.

What Are Reforestation Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are reductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere. They are measured in tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms.

Reforestation carbon offsets are a specific type of tree planting carbon offset that focuses on the replanting of trees in recently deforested areas (i.e., converting recently non-forested land back into forest).

How Are Carbon Offsets Defined

Carbon offsets play a crucial role in reducing our carbon footprint, the amount of CO2 emissions associated with an individual or an entity. 

“Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gasses and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”

Merriam Webster

Basically, a carbon footprint is the amount of carbon emitted by an activity or an organization. This includes GHG emissions from fuel that we burn directly (e.g., heating a home, driving a car) and GHG emissions from manufacturing the products that we use (e.g., power plants, factories, and landfills). 

One way to reduce our carbon footprint is via the use of carbon offsets. These are reductions in GHG emissions that are measured in tons of CO2 equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms. 

“Carbon offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by planting trees”

Oxford Dictionary

When you hear the words “carbon offset”, think about the term “compensation”. Essentially, carbon offsets are reductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere. Carbon offsets can range anywhere from a couple of hundred tons of CO2 per program per year to thousands of tons of CO2 per program per year. 

How Are Reforestation Carbon Offsets Defined

Planting trees can be classified in two ways, either as reforestation or afforestation. Reforestation carbon offsets are a specific type of tree planting carbon offset that focuses on replanting trees in recently deforested areas (i.e., converting recently non-forested land back into forest). Conversely, afforestation focuses on planting trees on land that has not recently been covered with forest.

“Reforestation: the action of renewing forest cover (as by natural seeding or by the artificial planting of seeds or young trees)”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Reforestation is an example of biological carbon sequestration, or the storage of carbon in vegetation (forests), soils, and oceans, which are commonly referred to as our carbon sinks. Reforestation carbon offsets can help combat deforestation, which is the main threat to our forests and occurs at approximately 10 million hectares (~25 million acres) per year. 

Illustration of deforestation and forest loss since the last ice age
Our World in Data: Deforestation and Forest Loss

In total, our planet has lost more than 1/3 of its forest since the last ice age, which occurred about 2.6 million years ago. 

How Do Reforestation Carbon Offsets Work

Reforestation carbon offsets fund projects that reduce CO2 emissions by increasing the number of trees on the planet, which absorb CO2 as they grow and mature. This bolsters our forest carbon sink and allows for increased atmospheric CO2 absorption.

How and When Do Reforestation Carbon Offsets Reduce CO2 Emissions

Reforestation is one of the easiest and most meaningful ways you can help preserve the environment and combat global climate change. Trees not only act as one of our largest carbon sinks, they also provide numerous benefits in addition to climate change mitigation.

How Do Reforestation Carbon Offsets Reduce CO2 Emissions

Reforestation projects reduce CO2 emissions by increasing the number of trees on the planet, which absorb CO2 as they grow and mature. A typical tree can absorb anywhere from 10-40kg (22-88 pounds) of CO2 per year.

When Do Reforestation Carbon Offsets Reduce CO2 Emissions

Carbon emission reductions are delayed when you plant new forests because you have to wait for the trees to reach maturity before they can begin to reduce carbon emissions. All trees mature at different rates, but a typical hardwood tree takes around 20 years to reach maturity. This means we must wait decades after planting the tree to begin to reap most of the environmental benefits. 

Creating new forests is more time intensive than protecting existing forests because finding suitable land and physically planting the trees to create a new forest takes time. Also, there is always the risk of, e.g., droughts, wildfires, tree diseases, and deforestation wiping out newly planted trees, negating any carbon reduction benefits. 

What Could Prevent Reforestation Carbon Offsets From Being Realized

Reforestation carbon offsets often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, and face carbon storage capacity limitations. This could prevent DCC offsets from being realized.

Nature-based solutions, such as reforestation, lack permanence because they are reversible. Once a tree is planted, it should never be removed in order to guarantee permanence. But trees die naturally, and environmental disasters such as floods, fires, changes in land use, and climate change itself can negate any permanence. 

Carbon emission reductions are also delayed when you plant new forests because you have to wait for the trees to reach maturity before they can begin to reduce carbon emissions. All trees mature at different rates, but a typical hardwood tree takes around 20 years to reach maturity. This means we must wait decades after planting the tree to begin to reap most of the environmental benefits. 

Lastly, how much carbon a tree can store, or its carbon storage capacity, is dependent on the type of tree and a host of environmental factors, but a typical tree can absorb anywhere from 10-40kg (22-88 pounds) of CO2 per year. Even if we use an average of 40 pounds of carbon absorbed, we would need to plant more than 200 billion trees every year to compensate for all of our emissions. And this number is far away from the approximately 1.9 billion trees currently planted every year.

What Is the Project Life-Cycle of Reforestation Carbon Offsets

To fully understand reforestation offsets, we must assess each stage of its life cycle. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, we had a look at the LCA for reforestation offsets! 

Building of Reforestation Carbon Offsets

The building of reforestation carbon offsets includes identifying lands in need of reforestation and physically planting the trees.

The areas most in need of reforestation are those that have recently been deforested or are currently being deforested. Over 95% of global deforestation occurs in tropical regions, with Brazil and Indonesia accounting for almost half. The Brazilian Amazon Rainforest alone has lost over 350,000 square kilometers (135,000 square miles) of forest over the past 20 years. 

Identifying these areas in need is the first step, and physically planting trees is the second step. Leading reforestation offsets (e.g., Ecologi and The Carbon Offset Company) have tree-planting partners that help them plant trees around the globe. Transporting trees to specific planting locations is also one aspect of this stage with a carbon footprint. 

Operating and Maintaining of Reforestation Carbon Offsets

The operating and maintaining of reforestation carbon offsets includes any measures taken after planting trees to keep the reforested lands alive and thriving. 

In order for reforestation projects to be successful, there must be measures in place to ensure permanence. The leading reforestation offsets (e.g.; The Arbor Day Foundation, Reforest’Action, Ecologi, Restore the Earth Foundation, and One Tree Planted) are effective at reducing carbon emissions because they monitor trees that have been planted to ensure they are not destroyed. 

Also, once established, forests can be protected under Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). REDD+ is a United Nations-backed framework that aims to combat global deforestation and preserve rainforests. It chiefly protects existing forests and helps guarantee they will not be deforested. 

Lastly, the operating/maintaining stage is also where the offsetting promised by reforestation projects occurs. Trees absorb CO2 as they grow and incorporate it into their trunks, branches, roots, and leaves. Guaranteeing permanence also guarantees carbon absorption for many years to come. 

End-of-Life of Reforestation Carbon Offsets

The end-of-life of reforestation carbon offsets would include anything that puts the reforested lands at risk of being destroyed, which hopefully would never occur.

Once a tree is planted, it should never be removed in order to guarantee permanence. But nature-based solutions, such as reforestation, often lack permanence because they are reversible. Rather than storing the carbon in permanent reservoirs (i.e., underground in rock formations), carbon is stored in biomass (trees). 

Trees are susceptible to a host of environmental disasters such as floods, fires, changes in land use, and climate change itself. Trees also die naturally over time, which can negate any permanence and signal the end-of-life of the carbon offset. 

AFR100: An Example Project of Reforestation Carbon Offsets

Africa contains 17% of our planet’s forest cover yet is subjected to deforestation at 4 times the global average rate. The rainforest of the Congo Basin, the second-largest tropical forest in the world, spans 6 African countries and encompasses 500 million acres.

The African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) is a country-led effort to bring 100 million hectares of land in the African Congo Basin into restoration by 2030. The 33 countries involved aim to restore agricultural lands, forests, mangroves, wetlands, and grasslands which would add nutrients to the soil, increase biodiversity, create jobs, and improve food security

One Tree Planted offers AFR100 carbon offsets through its website at a cost of $20 per 1,000kg of CO2. They plant various indigenous tree species (e.g., shea and mahogany) as well as mango, avocado, guava, and Brazil nut trees in the Congo Basin region.

How Effective and Efficient Are Reforestation Carbon Offsets

In terms of effectiveness, reforestation carbon offsets reinforce our carbon sinks; however, they often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing

In terms of efficiency, reforestation carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective and continue to avoid CO2 emissions after their project life span; however, they also face carbon storage capacity limitations.

Reforestation carbon offsets are effective at mitigating climate change because they reinforce one of our largest carbon sinks capable of absorbing a net 7.6 bt of CO2 per year.

However, reforestation carbon offsets can also lack effectiveness because they:

Reforestation carbon offsets are efficient at reducing CO2 emissions because they:

  • Are relatively cost-effective when compared to other methods of carbon emission reduction
  • Can continue to reduce carbon emissions long after the trees have been planted.

However, reforestation carbon offsets can also lack efficiency because they face carbon storage capacity limitations.

Reforestation carbon offsets also do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing. This occurs when emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, and the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not. This is why we should first reduce our emissions before relying on offsets.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about how effective and efficient reforestation carbon offsets are? Check out the full article here: “How Effective and Efficient Are Reforestation Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts”

How Could you Offset Your Own Carbon Footprint With Reforestation Carbon Offsets

The market for carbon offsets was small in the year 2000, but by 2010 it had already grown to represent nearly $10 billion worldwide. The voluntary carbon offset market (VCM) is where everyday consumers can purchase carbon offsets to offset their carbon emissions, and the Ecosystem Marketplace predicts the VCM can grow to $50B by the year 2050

Because reforestation carbon offsets are cost-effective and are one of the simplest ways you can contribute to the fight against climate change, they are expected to continue to make up an ever-increasing share of the VCM. Below are our favorite reforestation offsets.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the best reforestation carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Best Reforestation Carbon Offsets (Complete 2023 List)”
Carbon Offsets for ReforestationQuick Facts
The Arbor Day FoundationAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including those in Mississippi, Nicaragua, and Peru.
Costs: $40 per 1,000kg of CO2
Reforest’ActionAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
Costs: $19.30 per 1,000kg of CO2 for a direct carbon offset, $20 per 1,000kg of CO2 for an offset subscription
EcologiAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including those in Madagascar, Mozambique, Bolivia, and Morocco.
Costs: $6.04 per 1,000 kg of CO2 offset
Restore the Earth FoundationAbout: Carbon offset purchases support reforestation in the Lower Mississippi River Basin in the US.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
One Tree PlantedAbout: Carbon offset purchases support reforestation in North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Pacific.
Costs: $20 per 1,000kg of CO2
The Carbon Offset CompanyAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including those in the US, Senegal, Madagascar, Haiti, and Mozambique.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
GreenTreesAbout: The GreenTree reforestation program partners with landowners to convert farmland into hardwood forest. GreenTrees currently plant trees in the South Eastern US, the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and the state of Virginia. 
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
CarbonfundAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley Reforestation Initiative and the Panama Reforestation Project.
Costs: $16.25-$17.16 per 1,000kg of CO2 for individuals, $390-$1,560 per year for small businesses, determined after initial contact for large businesses
Cool EffectAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including The Giving Trees project in Kenya and Uganda.
Costs: $8.79-$21.97 per 1,000kg of CO2
myclimateAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including those in Nicaragua and Uganda.
Costs: $23-$30 per 1,000kg of CO2

How Can Reforestation Carbon Offsets Help Mitigate Climate Change

Climate change is a severe and long-term consequence of fossil fuel combustion. Reforestation carbon offsets can help mitigate climate change because the more trees we plant, the more CO2 they can absorb from our atmosphere. Carbon in our atmosphere can, if left untreated, remain there for tens of thousands of years and exacerbate the negative effects of climate change.

How is Climate Change Defined

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term global impact of fossil fuel combustion. Every year, approximately 33 billion tons (bt) of CO2 are emitted from burning fossil fuels. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2

“Climate change: changes in the earth’s weather, including changes in temperature, wind patterns and rainfall, especially the increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere that is caused by the increase of particular gasses, especially carbon dioxide.”

Oxford Dictionary

Atmospheric CO2 fuels climate change, which results in global warming. When CO2 and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, it traps the heat and acts as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years. 

As outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we must cut current GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050

How Do Carbon Offsets Generally Help Mitigate Climate Change

Levels of carbon in our atmosphere that cause climate change have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. The global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million. Carbon offsets can help prevent these levels from increasing even more.

When you hear the words “carbon offset”, think about the term “compensation”. Essentially, carbon offsets are reductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere

Carbon offsets that meet key criteria and verified project standards, are additional and permanent, and are a part of projects that are carried out until the end of their lifespan have the best chance of reducing carbon emissions and therefore reducing climate change. 

When we offset CO2 we also slow the rate of global temperature rise, which in turn minimizes the effects of climate change. 

How Do Reforestation Carbon Offsets Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

Reforestation offsets specifically help mitigate climate change because they plant more trees, and trees remove CO2 from the air as they grow. By increasing the number of trees on our planet, we increase the amount of carbon they are capable of storing. The more carbon our forests can sequester, the less carbon there is in our atmosphere. And because higher levels of carbon exacerbate global warming, less is better.

What Are The 5 Pros and 4 Cons of Reforestation Carbon Offsets

Reforestation carbon offsets are cost-effective, reinforce our carbon sinks, preserve biodiversity, promote clean water, and allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.

However, reforestation carbon offsets also often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, face carbon storage capacity limitations, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the pros and cons of reforestation carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Reforestation Carbon Offsets: All 5 Pros and 4 Cons Explained”

What Are the 5 Pros of Reforestation Carbon Offsets

Reforestation carbon offsets have various pros that make them effective at absorbing carbon from our atmosphere.

5 Pros of Reforestation Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Reforestation offsets are cost-effectiveReforestation carbon offsets themselves are typically more cost-effective than other categories of carbon offsets. For example, reforestation offsets from leading providers (i.e., The Arbor Day Foundation, Reforest’Action, Ecologi, and One Tree Planted) cost less than $50 per ton of CO2 offset. 
#2: Reforestation offsets reinforce our carbon sinksForests act as a giant carbon sink capable of absorbing a net 7.6 bt of CO2 per year and storing it in their leaves, trunks, roots, and surrounding soil.
#3: Reforestation offsets preserve biodiversityReforestation promotes biodiversity because forests support terrestrial and aquatic wildlife by providing habitats and helping to keep waterways healthy. Having a variety of plants and animals also sustains healthy ecosystems
#4: Reforestation offsets help maintain the water cycleTrees capture, store, and use rainfall which aids in maintaining water quality and regulating the natural water cycle. When it rains, trees slow down the flow of water by absorbing it into the ground. This filters pollution and reduces flooding risks.
#5: Reforestation offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individuallyReforestation carbon offsets allow us to reduce emissions from activities where sustainable alternatives are not yet widely available. 

What Are the 4 Cons of Reforestation Carbon Offsets

Understanding the drawbacks of reforestation carbon offsets is important when implementing this strategy on a large scale in order to mitigate climate change.

4 Cons of Reforestation Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Reforestation offsets often lack permanenceReforestation offsets often lack permanence because they are reversible. Trees die naturally, and environmental disasters such as floods, fires, changes in land use, and climate change itself can negate any permanence.
#2: Reforestation offsets do not reduce carbon emissions immediately Carbon emission reductions are delayed when you plant new forests because you have to wait around 20 years for the trees to reach maturity before they can begin to reduce carbon emissions. 
#3: Reforestation offsets face carbon storage capacity limitationsTrees can only store so much carbon. Their carbon storage capacity ranges from 10-40kg (22-88 pounds) of CO2 per year, which isn’t enough to compensate for all of our carbon emissions.
#4: Reforestation offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashingIf emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, this could lead to greenwashing, when the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not. 

What Are Better Alternatives to Reforestation Carbon Offsets

If used correctly, reforestation carbon offsets can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions. They have the potential to instigate meaningful environmental change and begin to reverse some of the effects of climate change. 

However, we can’t let this method be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Reforestation carbon offsets must be used in conjunction with direct carbon reduction measures because planting trees alone will not reduce CO2 levels enough in the short term to meet 2030 net-zero targets. 

These reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household carbon footprint:

Reduce your travel carbon footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle carbon footprint:

  • Switch to renewable energy sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global carbon emissions and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs means fewer carbon emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

Because reforestation offsets are an indirect way and not a direct way of reducing emissions, they alone will not be enough to reduce global carbon emissions significantly. Direct measures of emission reductions, such as reducing individual energy use and consumption, are better alternatives to reforestation offsets. 

Related: Are you interested in learning why reducing your carbon footprint is so important? Check it out in this article here: “4 Main Reasons Why Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Is Important”

Final Thoughts

Reforestation (tree planting) carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that plants trees in recently deforested areas. CO2 reduction occurs as trees grow and mature, as they incorporate it into their trunks, leaves, and roots. Although emissions are not reduced immediately, planting trees is one of the simplest ways we can join in the fight against climate change.

Although reforestation offsets can instigate meaningful change, they should not be seen as the only solution to climate change. They are effective at reducing CO2 in the short term, but in the long term, they fail to reduce CO2 enough. Reforestation offsets also do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

When used in conjunction with direct CO2 reduction measures, carbon offsetting can be much more effective. We should reduce our own carbon footprint as much as possible first, and only then choose the most effective carbon offsets.

Stay impactful,

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