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Carbon Offsets (Taylor’s Version)

The pop star’s use of hazily defined offsets to deflect criticism perfectly illustrates how the offsets market works in practice.

Rich Polk/Golden Globes 2024/Getty Images
Taylor Swift at the 81st Golden Globe Awards held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 7, in California

The response of Taylor Swift’s spokesperson to December reports that the pop star had generated 128 tons of carbon dioxide from private jet travel in just three months was simple: Before the start of her “Eras” tour in March 2023, “Taylor purchased more than double the carbon credits needed to offset all tour travel.”

This was a striking story for a few reasons. First, 128 tons of carbon dioxide is roughly equivalent to the average annual emissions of 28 gas-powered cars or 16 homes, per an Environmental Protection Agency emissions equivalency calculator. Second, the source for these figures has since disappeared from the internet: The emissions numbers were reportedly calculated by an Instagram page called Taylor Swift’s Jets, tracking journeys by her Desault Falcon 7x and Dessault Falcon 900. Shortly after major news outlets picked up the numbers, the page disappeared from the social media site.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect, from a climate perspective, is the pop star’s purchase of offsets to deflect criticism. In brief, carbon offset vendors claim to allow polluters to counteract emissions they generate by purchasing credits that correspond to emissions reductions elsewhere. Often, that means paying some entity—like a nonprofit or corporation—to preserve tracts of forests that would otherwise be cut down. Offsets are also sold by companies like Climeworks, which captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through a process known as Direct Air Capture and stores it in geological formations. So which carbon offsets is Taylor Swift buying?

Universal, Swift’s record label, did not respond to an inquiry as to where Swift had purchased the offsets. High-quality offsets are extraordinarily hard to come by, though. Over the last several years, the industry has been mired in controversy over the validity of its claims: Are all of the lands companies claim to protect, for instance, actually in danger of being razed? Trees planted are also liable to die or be cut down at some point: While carbon generated by a private jet will remain in the atmosphere indefinitely, there’s virtually no way for credit vendors to ensure trees will stay standing for time immemorial.

“The entire market is structured around a fundamental falsehood: that a ton of carbon we get from burning fossil fuels is identical to a ton of carbon stored in forests. That is 100 percent false,” Danny Cullenward, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, whose research focuses on carbon offsets and storage, told me in September. “If you store carbon for less time than it takes to stabilize temperatures, that storage does not have any climate benefit.”

One recent study, still undergoing peer review as of last September, estimated that just 12 percent of offset projects “constitute real emissions reductions.” Another investigation published last fall by The Guardian and the nonprofit watchdog Corporate Accountability concluded that 78 percent of the top 50 carbon-offsetting projects are “likely junk.”

Last month wasn’t the first time Swift’s jets have been in the news. A 2022 report from British “sustainability marketing firm” Yard named her the biggest celebrity polluter of the year. The firm found that Swift’s jet had spent the equivalent of 16 days in the air during the first six months of that year. A spokesperson for the “Midnight” singer said at the time that Swift frequently loaned out her planes to be used by others.

Many of the credits purchased by corporations—and potentially Swift—are validated by third parties meant to ensure those credits are legit. Those firms have also come under heavy fire. One 2023 exposé revealed that at least 90 percent of credits approved by one of the largest third-party verifiers, claiming offset projects in rainforests, were worthless “phantom credits” that didn’t correspond to any reductions. (The subject of the investigation, a nongovernmental organization called Verra, has disputed the allegations.)

There are very few requirements for companies or individuals that purchase offsets to publicly disclose where they come from. California passed a law last year, Assembly Bill 1305, requiring “entities” that do business in the state and that buy or sell carbon credits, to make that information available. There’s been dispute over whether the statute takes effect this year or in 2025, as the bill’s author has argued it does in recent weeks. Without additional information from Swift’s team, there’s little way of knowing whether Swift personally, Universal, or some other legal entity purchased the offsets, and, accordingly, whether whatever entity bought them would be subject to the new law once it takes effect.

“If Swift or her companies have publicly claimed that the tour was carbon neutral or that it produced less climate impact than its actual emissions because of offset credit use, then arguably they have made a claim that is covered under AB 1305,” Cullenward, who advocated for the bill’s passage, told me over text.

There’s still a blank space to be filled in as to whether Taylor Swift’s carbon offsets are legit, but she does seem eager to shake off her reputation as a climate villain. Swift might not need to come clean in the end. Carbon offset buyers and sellers in the Golden State, however, know all too well that they’ll need to soon enough.