Cookies help us run our site more efficiently.

By clicking “Accept”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information or to customize your cookie preferences.

Solve at MIT 2023: Collaboration and climate efforts are at the forefront of social impact

News Feed
Monday, May 15, 2023

“The scale, complexity, the global nature of the problems we’re dealing with are so big that no single institution, industry, or country can deal with them alone,” MIT President Sally Kornbluth stated in her first remarks to the Solve community. Over 300 social impact leaders from around the world convened on MIT’s campus for Solve at MIT 2023 to celebrate the 2022 Solver class and to discuss some of the world’s greatest challenges and how we can tackle them with innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology. These challenges can be complicated and may even feel insurmountable, but Solve at MIT leaves us with the hope, tools, and connections needed to find solutions together. Hala Hanna, executive director of MIT Solve, shared what keeps her inspired and at the front line of social impact: “Optimism isn’t about looking away from the issues but looking right at them, believing we can create the solutions and putting in the work. So, anytime I need a dose of optimism, I look to the innovators we work with,” Hanna shared during the opening plenary, Unlocking our Collective Potential. Over the course of three days, more than 300 individuals from around the world convened to celebrate the 2022 Solver class, create partnerships that lead to progress, and address solutions to pressing world issues in real-time. Every technologist, philanthropist, investor, and innovator present at Solve at MIT left with their own takeaway, but three main themes seemed to underscore the overall discussions. Technology and innovation are as neutral as the makers Having bias is a natural part of what makes us human. However, being aware of our predispositions is necessary to transform our lived experiences into actionable solutions for others to benefit from.  We’ve largely learned that bias can be both unavoidable and applied almost instantly. Sangbae Kim, director of the Biomimetic Robotics Laboratory and professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, proved this through robotics demonstrations where attendees almost unanimously were more impressed with a back-flipping MIT robot compared to one walking in circles. As it turns out, it took one individual three days to program a robot to do a flip and over two weeks for a full team to program one to walk. “We judge through the knowledge and bias we have based on our lived experiences,” Kim pointed out. Bias and lived experiences don’t have to be bad things. The solutions we create based on our own lives are what matter.  2022 Solver Atif Javed, co-founder and executive director of Tarjimly, began translating for his grandmother as a child and learned about the struggles that come with being a refugee. This led him to develop a humanitarian language-translation application, which connects volunteer translators with immigrants, refugees, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and more, on demand.  Vanessa Castañeda Gill, 2022 Solver and co-founder and CEO of Social Cipher, transformed her personal experience with ADHD and autism to develop Ava, a video game empowering neuro-divergent youth and facilitating social-emotional learning. For Kelsey Wirth, co-founder and chair of Mothers Out Front, the experience of motherhood and the shared concerns for the well-being of children are what unite her with other moms.  Whitney Wolf Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble, shared that as a leader in technology and a person who witnessed toxic online spaces, she sees it as her responsibility to spearhead change.  During the plenary, “Bringing us Together or Tearing us Apart?” Wolf Herd asked, “What if we could use technology to be a force for positivity?” She shared her vision for equality and respect to be part of the next digital wave. She also called for technology leaders to join her to ensure “guardrails and ground rules” are in place to make sure this goal becomes a reality. Social innovation must be intersectional and intergenerational During Solve at MIT, industry leaders across sectors, cultures, ages, and expertise banded together to address pressing issues and to form relationships with innovators looking for support in real time. Adam Bly, founder and CEO of System Inc., discussed the interconnected nature of all things and why his organization is on a mission to show the links, “We’re seeing rising complexity in the systems that make up life on earth, and it impacts us individually and globally. The way we organize the information and data we need to make decisions about those systems [is highly] siloed and highly fragmented, and it impairs our ability to make decisions in the most systemic, holistic, rational way.” President and CEO of the National Resources Defense Council Manish Bapna shared his advocacy for cross-sector work: “Part of what I’ve seen really proliferate and expand in a good way over the past 10 to 15 years are collaborations involving startups in the private sector, governments, and NGOs. No single stakeholder or organization can solve the problem, but by coming together, they bring different perspectives and skills in ways that can create the innovation we need to see.” For a long time, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) were seen as the subjects that would resolve our complex issues, but as it turns out, art also holds a tremendous amount of power to transcend identity, borders, status, and concerns, to connect us all and aid us in global unity. Artists Beatie Wolfe, Norhan Bayomi, Aida Murad, and Nneka Jones showed us how to bring healing and awareness to topics like social and environmental injustice through their music, embroidery, and painting. The 2023 Solv[ED] Innovators, all age 24 or under, have solutions that are improving communication for individuals with hearing loss, transforming plastic waste into sustainable furniture, and protecting the Black birthing community, among other incredible feats. Kami Dar, co-founder and CEO of Uniti Networks, summarizes the value of interconnected problem-solving: “My favorite SDG [sustainable development goal] is SDG number 17— the power of partnership. Look for the adjacent problem-solvers and make sure we are not reinventing the wheel.” Relationships and the environment connect us all Solve is working to address global challenges on an ongoing basis connected to climate, economic prosperity, health, and learning. Many of these focus areas bleed into one another, but social justice and climate action served as a backdrop for many global issues addressed during Solve at MIT. “When we started addressing climate change, we saw it primarily as technical issues to bring down emissions … There's inequality, there’s poverty, there are social tensions that are rising … We are not going to address climate change without addressing the social tensions that are embedded,” said Lewis Akenji, managing director of the Hot or Cool Institute. Akenji sees food, mobility, and housing as the most impactful areas to focus solutions on first. During the “Ensuring a Just Transition to Net Zero” plenary, Heather Clancy, vice president and editorial director at Greenbiz, asked panelists what lessons they have learned from their work. Janelle Knox Hayes, ​​professor of economic geography and planning at MIT, shared that listening to communities, especially front-line and Indigenous communities, is needed before deploying solutions to the energy crisis. “Climate work has this sense of urgency, like it rapidly has to be done … to do really engaged environmental justice work, we have to slow down and realize even before we begin, we need a long period of time to plan. But before we even do that, we have to rebuild relationships and trust and reciprocity … [This] will lead to better and longer-lasting solutions.” Hina Baloch, executive director and global head of climate change and sustainability strategy and communication at General Motors, asked Chéri Smith, founder of Indigenous Energy Initiative, to share her perspective on energy sovereignty as it relates to Indigenous communities. Smith shared, “Tribes can’t be sovereign if they’re relying on outside sources for their energy. We were founded to support the self-determination of tribes to revamp their energy systems and rebuild, construct, and maintain them themselves.” Smith shared an example of human and tribal-centered innovation in the making. Through the Biden administration's national electronic vehicle (EV) initiative, Indigenous Energy Initiative and Native Sun Community Power Development will collaborate and create an inter-tribal EV charging network. “The last time we built out an electric grid, it deliberately skipped over tribal country. This time, we want to make sure that we not only have a seat at the table, but that we build out the tables and invite everyone to them,” said Smith. Solve at MIT led to meaningful discussions about climate change, intersectional and accessible innovation, and the power that human connection has to unite everyone. Entrepreneurship and social change are the paths forward. And although the challenges ahead of us can be daunting, with community, collaboration, and a healthy dose of bravery, global challenges will continue to be solved by agile impact entrepreneurs all around the world.  As Adrianne Haslet, a professional ballroom dancer and Boston Marathon bombing survivor, reminded attendees, “What will get you to the finish line is nothing compared to what got you to the start line.”

Over 300 social impact leaders from around the world convened on MIT’s campus to discuss global challenges and how to solve them together.

“The scale, complexity, the global nature of the problems we’re dealing with are so big that no single institution, industry, or country can deal with them alone,” MIT President Sally Kornbluth stated in her first remarks to the Solve community.

Over 300 social impact leaders from around the world convened on MIT’s campus for Solve at MIT 2023 to celebrate the 2022 Solver class and to discuss some of the world’s greatest challenges and how we can tackle them with innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology.

These challenges can be complicated and may even feel insurmountable, but Solve at MIT leaves us with the hope, tools, and connections needed to find solutions together.

Hala Hanna, executive director of MIT Solve, shared what keeps her inspired and at the front line of social impact: “Optimism isn’t about looking away from the issues but looking right at them, believing we can create the solutions and putting in the work. So, anytime I need a dose of optimism, I look to the innovators we work with,” Hanna shared during the opening plenary, Unlocking our Collective Potential.

Over the course of three days, more than 300 individuals from around the world convened to celebrate the 2022 Solver class, create partnerships that lead to progress, and address solutions to pressing world issues in real-time.

Every technologist, philanthropist, investor, and innovator present at Solve at MIT left with their own takeaway, but three main themes seemed to underscore the overall discussions.

Technology and innovation are as neutral as the makers

Having bias is a natural part of what makes us human. However, being aware of our predispositions is necessary to transform our lived experiences into actionable solutions for others to benefit from. 

We’ve largely learned that bias can be both unavoidable and applied almost instantly. Sangbae Kim, director of the Biomimetic Robotics Laboratory and professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, proved this through robotics demonstrations where attendees almost unanimously were more impressed with a back-flipping MIT robot compared to one walking in circles. As it turns out, it took one individual three days to program a robot to do a flip and over two weeks for a full team to program one to walk. “We judge through the knowledge and bias we have based on our lived experiences,” Kim pointed out.

Bias and lived experiences don’t have to be bad things. The solutions we create based on our own lives are what matter. 

2022 Solver Atif Javed, co-founder and executive director of Tarjimly, began translating for his grandmother as a child and learned about the struggles that come with being a refugee. This led him to develop a humanitarian language-translation application, which connects volunteer translators with immigrants, refugees, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and more, on demand. 

Vanessa Castañeda Gill, 2022 Solver and co-founder and CEO of Social Cipher, transformed her personal experience with ADHD and autism to develop Ava, a video game empowering neuro-divergent youth and facilitating social-emotional learning.

For Kelsey Wirth, co-founder and chair of Mothers Out Front, the experience of motherhood and the shared concerns for the well-being of children are what unite her with other moms. 

Whitney Wolf Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble, shared that as a leader in technology and a person who witnessed toxic online spaces, she sees it as her responsibility to spearhead change. 

During the plenary, “Bringing us Together or Tearing us Apart?” Wolf Herd asked, “What if we could use technology to be a force for positivity?” She shared her vision for equality and respect to be part of the next digital wave. She also called for technology leaders to join her to ensure “guardrails and ground rules” are in place to make sure this goal becomes a reality.

Social innovation must be intersectional and intergenerational

During Solve at MIT, industry leaders across sectors, cultures, ages, and expertise banded together to address pressing issues and to form relationships with innovators looking for support in real time.

Adam Bly, founder and CEO of System Inc., discussed the interconnected nature of all things and why his organization is on a mission to show the links, “We’re seeing rising complexity in the systems that make up life on earth, and it impacts us individually and globally. The way we organize the information and data we need to make decisions about those systems [is highly] siloed and highly fragmented, and it impairs our ability to make decisions in the most systemic, holistic, rational way.”

President and CEO of the National Resources Defense Council Manish Bapna shared his advocacy for cross-sector work: “Part of what I’ve seen really proliferate and expand in a good way over the past 10 to 15 years are collaborations involving startups in the private sector, governments, and NGOs. No single stakeholder or organization can solve the problem, but by coming together, they bring different perspectives and skills in ways that can create the innovation we need to see.”

For a long time, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) were seen as the subjects that would resolve our complex issues, but as it turns out, art also holds a tremendous amount of power to transcend identity, borders, status, and concerns, to connect us all and aid us in global unity. Artists Beatie Wolfe, Norhan Bayomi, Aida Murad, and Nneka Jones showed us how to bring healing and awareness to topics like social and environmental injustice through their music, embroidery, and painting.

The 2023 Solv[ED] Innovators, all age 24 or under, have solutions that are improving communication for individuals with hearing loss, transforming plastic waste into sustainable furniture, and protecting the Black birthing community, among other incredible feats.

Kami Dar, co-founder and CEO of Uniti Networks, summarizes the value of interconnected problem-solving: “My favorite SDG [sustainable development goal] is SDG number 17— the power of partnership. Look for the adjacent problem-solvers and make sure we are not reinventing the wheel.”

Relationships and the environment connect us all

Solve is working to address global challenges on an ongoing basis connected to climate, economic prosperity, health, and learning. Many of these focus areas bleed into one another, but social justice and climate action served as a backdrop for many global issues addressed during Solve at MIT.

“When we started addressing climate change, we saw it primarily as technical issues to bring down emissions … There's inequality, there’s poverty, there are social tensions that are rising … We are not going to address climate change without addressing the social tensions that are embedded,” said Lewis Akenji, managing director of the Hot or Cool Institute. Akenji sees food, mobility, and housing as the most impactful areas to focus solutions on first.

During the “Ensuring a Just Transition to Net Zero” plenary, Heather Clancy, vice president and editorial director at Greenbiz, asked panelists what lessons they have learned from their work. Janelle Knox Hayes, ​​professor of economic geography and planning at MIT, shared that listening to communities, especially front-line and Indigenous communities, is needed before deploying solutions to the energy crisis. “Climate work has this sense of urgency, like it rapidly has to be done … to do really engaged environmental justice work, we have to slow down and realize even before we begin, we need a long period of time to plan. But before we even do that, we have to rebuild relationships and trust and reciprocity … [This] will lead to better and longer-lasting solutions.”

Hina Baloch, executive director and global head of climate change and sustainability strategy and communication at General Motors, asked Chéri Smith, founder of Indigenous Energy Initiative, to share her perspective on energy sovereignty as it relates to Indigenous communities. Smith shared, “Tribes can’t be sovereign if they’re relying on outside sources for their energy. We were founded to support the self-determination of tribes to revamp their energy systems and rebuild, construct, and maintain them themselves.”

Smith shared an example of human and tribal-centered innovation in the making. Through the Biden administration's national electronic vehicle (EV) initiative, Indigenous Energy Initiative and Native Sun Community Power Development will collaborate and create an inter-tribal EV charging network. “The last time we built out an electric grid, it deliberately skipped over tribal country. This time, we want to make sure that we not only have a seat at the table, but that we build out the tables and invite everyone to them,” said Smith.

Solve at MIT led to meaningful discussions about climate change, intersectional and accessible innovation, and the power that human connection has to unite everyone. Entrepreneurship and social change are the paths forward. And although the challenges ahead of us can be daunting, with community, collaboration, and a healthy dose of bravery, global challenges will continue to be solved by agile impact entrepreneurs all around the world. 

As Adrianne Haslet, a professional ballroom dancer and Boston Marathon bombing survivor, reminded attendees, “What will get you to the finish line is nothing compared to what got you to the start line.”

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

How This Popular Climate “Solution” Could Tank Our Progress

What could be worth giving up a tenth of your country? The Liberian government reportedly plans to do exactly that and sell control of its intact rainforests to the scion of one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers. A draft memorandum of understanding, leaked last month, between Liberia’s Ministry of Finance and Blue Carbon LLC—one of many companies started by a 38-year-old member of Dubai’s royal family, Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum—would commit the small African nation to hand over exclusive rights to one million hectares of forest lands. In exchange, Blue Carbon will transform that land into “environmental assets,” including carbon credits: essentially, sellable units of promised emissions reductions. Such credits are, in general, intended to offset actual pollution by businesses, individuals, or governments. They can be bought either as a voluntary means of reducing carbon footprints or as a way to comply with government climate goals and regulations.For oil-rich countries like the United Arab Emirates—the host of this year’s U.N. climate talks, COP28—“carbon offset” schemes like the one described above hold incredible promise; the UAE is banking heavily on offsets to meet its own climate goals and has emphasized their importance in the lead-up to COP28. It’s a compelling pitch: Any emissions polluters can’t curb themselves can be outsourced to someone else. That basic premise undergirds everything from frothy corporate net-zero pledges to the decision to make your flight “carbon neutral” at checkout—and (arguably) the world’s hopes of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The only problem is that carbon offsets of all kinds are increasingly being outed as total bullshit.Over the last few years, a drumbeat of academic research and investigative reporting has painted a bleak picture of carbon offsets and the carbon markets through which they’re traded. Just this week, a team of journalists at CarbonBrief published an exhaustive explainer on offsets and the many damning studies poking holes in a practice that’s long been a darling of climate policy wonks. That includes a study now making its way through the peer review process, which estimates that only 12 percent of carbon-offset projects “constitute real emissions reductions.” There are well-documented cases, as well, of carbon credit developers engaging in human rights abuses and displacing Indigenous communities. An investigation published last week by The Guardian and the nonprofit watchdog Corporate Accountability found that 78 percent of the top 50 carbon-offset projects are “likely junk.” That seemingly endless flow of reports has started to make an impact. The European Union is poised to crack down on unprovable “carbon neutral” claims that are often backed up by offsets. Even Shell—which boasted in 2021 about having delivered the first-ever “carbon neutral” liquefied natural gas cargo—quietly abandoned a $100 million-per-year plan last month to build out a pipeline of carbon credits en route to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Stateside, the Commodities Futures Trading Association has recently signaled that it intends to crack down on carbon credit fraud. Lawsuits are beginning to ramp up. That increased scrutiny, though, has yet to spark a broader reckoning with what it means if carbon offsets can’t be counted on to meet climate goals: a far more drastic effort to reduce emissions in real time. “There’s nothing happening today that wasn’t happening five years ago. It’s just that there was no one paying attention to it,” said environmental economist Danny Cullenward, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, whose research focuses on carbon offsets and storage. The problems with “offsets” (a term of art describing a wide suite of activities) are definitional and fall into a few categories. Most have to do with the integrity of emission-reductions claims. Carbon credits are meant to correspond to emissions that have been avoided—say, through preventing trees from being razed—reduced, or removed, typically either through technologies such as direct air capture, which draws atmospheric carbon in through fans to then be stored in pipelines or injected underground, or “natural” methods like planting trees. Not much is natural, though, about buying up and seeding vast swathes of land with crops meant to serve a single purpose. When it comes to credits generated from avoided emissions, there’s often little way of knowing whether a tract of forest, for instance, was ever actually in danger of being developed. Landowners can say they might bulldoze trees to sell off credits—even if they had no real plans to do so. Polluters who buy credits should be able to prove what’s known as “additionality”—the idea that their purchase made possible emissions reductions that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But if the trees were never threatened, then the polluter who bought the credits hasn’t actually counteracted any of its own emissions. Third-party verifiers that judge the integrity of carbon credits have been rocked by scandals. Some two-thirds of credits on the voluntary carbon market were verified by the Verified Carbon Standard, which is administered by an NGO called Verra. A months-long investigation by The Guardian, the German outlet Die Zeit, and a nonprofit newsroom called SourceMaterial, published in January, revealed that at least 90 percent of VCS-approved credits generated in the rainforest—popular among major brands like Disney and Gucci—were worthless “phantom credits” that didn’t correspond to any reductions. (Verra has refuted the allegations.)Another major issue is who gets to claim carbon credits. If a wealthy country buys credits from a poorer one, does the country that financed those promised emissions reductions get to count them toward its climate goals? Or does the country where they were reduced? As of now, there are few protections against multiple parties staking a claim to the same credits. Even more legitimate-seeming credits generated from forestry practices are likely unable to guarantee the emissions savings promised. Where a metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted from a coal plant will stay in the atmosphere permanently, with effects felt decades down the line, a metric ton of carbon stored in trees or avoided by saving more of them can be wiped out at virtually any point. True correspondence would require that carbon to be stored permanently. That’s a difficult promise to make. Even project operators who can honestly claim to be protecting as much carbon as they say, that is—based on the size and ecological makeup of the areas in question—can’t guarantee that carbon will be stored indefinitely. California learned firsthand how that can go wrong. The state’s cap-and-trade system is premised on big polluters, including oil and gas drillers, buying up permits that correspond to emissions avoided through the protection of its vast forests. Those purchases allow a firm to make up the difference between emissions reductions in their own operations and a declining, state-mandated cap on how much they’re allowed to emit. Included in that system is a “buffer” stock of additional forest lands set aside by project developers as insurance should other credit-generating trees burn. That buffer was meant to provide 100 years of protection against wildfire risk for California forest offsets. But over the last 10 years, 95 percent of those reserves have gone up in flames, releasing between 5.7 million and 6.8 million metric tons of carbon since 2015. While the country’s largest property insurer has almost entirely stopped taking out new policies in California, citing wildfire risk, the state agency that oversees California’s carbon market still only requires forest offset project developers to set aside an additional 2 to 4 percent of trees as insurance against wildfire risk. As a Mendocino County property called Eddie Ranch burned in 2018, its owners filed paperwork with that agency—the California Air Resources Board—to be paid millions for credits generated from preserving trees that were actively burning. Months later, CARB approved the application, “basing its decision on the state of the ranch before the fire,” the Los Angeles Times reported.  “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,” Cullenward told me. “If you store carbon for less time than it takes to stabilize temperatures, that storage does not have any climate benefit.”That’s one consequence, he explains, of seeing the world like an economist. On paper, carbon stored in trees and what’s emitted from a coal plant is all just carbon. Physical reality tells a different story. Companies relying on offset credits to meet net-zero goals typically only budget for cheap, low-quality projects likely to be worthless, or worse. High-quality offsets are exceedingly rare. More permanent carbon storage remains unproven at scale but is likely to be needed “at gigaton scale,” Cullenward says, just to stabilize temperatures. After decades of scandals, there have been attempts to put some safeguards around carbon markets. Article 6.4 of the Paris Agreement creates a new U.N.-backed carbon market open to governments and companies alike to trade credits. Standards for that are being developed by a supervisory body composed of members from each U.N. regional group, and key elements will need to be approved by the countries that convene at annual U.N. climate meetings.Article 6.2 is meant to govern bilateral carbon trading—agreements reached between countries, as opposed to a market where companies and governments can shop around for offsets or offer them up for sale as needed. As of now, that’s more of a Wild West, says Jonathan Crook, who tracks negotiations for the Brussels-based watchdog Carbon Market Watch. “Countries can more or less do what they want as long as they agree to it,” he said. “There are very few rules that need to be upheld in terms of integrity and additionality.” Among the fears held by Carbon Market Watch and other advocates is that those transactions will turn into a black box. If changes agreed to at last year’s COP stick, countries will be able to keep details about trades confidential. While technical experts at the U.N. will be tasked with reviewing them, they would be forbidden from divulging information to the public. A report published by Carbon Market Watch this week puts forward a set of criteria for judging so-called negative emissions, emphasizing the need to ensure carbon is stored permanently and that such tools are used as a complement to rather than substitute for mitigation. While bilateral trades can already happen, fully fleshed-out rules under 6.2 could stand to explode the market for such deals. As bad news about carbon offsets has multiplied, so too have troubling climate science and catastrophes fueled by rising temperatures. As pressure builds internationally, dramatic land grabs like the one Blue Carbon has pushed in Liberia could become more and more common. As of now, it’s all too likely that those could do more harm than good.

What could be worth giving up a tenth of your country? The Liberian government reportedly plans to do exactly that and sell control of its intact rainforests to the scion of one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers. A draft memorandum of understanding, leaked last month, between Liberia’s Ministry of Finance and Blue Carbon LLC—one of many companies started by a 38-year-old member of Dubai’s royal family, Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum—would commit the small African nation to hand over exclusive rights to one million hectares of forest lands. In exchange, Blue Carbon will transform that land into “environmental assets,” including carbon credits: essentially, sellable units of promised emissions reductions. Such credits are, in general, intended to offset actual pollution by businesses, individuals, or governments. They can be bought either as a voluntary means of reducing carbon footprints or as a way to comply with government climate goals and regulations.For oil-rich countries like the United Arab Emirates—the host of this year’s U.N. climate talks, COP28—“carbon offset” schemes like the one described above hold incredible promise; the UAE is banking heavily on offsets to meet its own climate goals and has emphasized their importance in the lead-up to COP28. It’s a compelling pitch: Any emissions polluters can’t curb themselves can be outsourced to someone else. That basic premise undergirds everything from frothy corporate net-zero pledges to the decision to make your flight “carbon neutral” at checkout—and (arguably) the world’s hopes of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The only problem is that carbon offsets of all kinds are increasingly being outed as total bullshit.Over the last few years, a drumbeat of academic research and investigative reporting has painted a bleak picture of carbon offsets and the carbon markets through which they’re traded. Just this week, a team of journalists at CarbonBrief published an exhaustive explainer on offsets and the many damning studies poking holes in a practice that’s long been a darling of climate policy wonks. That includes a study now making its way through the peer review process, which estimates that only 12 percent of carbon-offset projects “constitute real emissions reductions.” There are well-documented cases, as well, of carbon credit developers engaging in human rights abuses and displacing Indigenous communities. An investigation published last week by The Guardian and the nonprofit watchdog Corporate Accountability found that 78 percent of the top 50 carbon-offset projects are “likely junk.” That seemingly endless flow of reports has started to make an impact. The European Union is poised to crack down on unprovable “carbon neutral” claims that are often backed up by offsets. Even Shell—which boasted in 2021 about having delivered the first-ever “carbon neutral” liquefied natural gas cargo—quietly abandoned a $100 million-per-year plan last month to build out a pipeline of carbon credits en route to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Stateside, the Commodities Futures Trading Association has recently signaled that it intends to crack down on carbon credit fraud. Lawsuits are beginning to ramp up. That increased scrutiny, though, has yet to spark a broader reckoning with what it means if carbon offsets can’t be counted on to meet climate goals: a far more drastic effort to reduce emissions in real time. “There’s nothing happening today that wasn’t happening five years ago. It’s just that there was no one paying attention to it,” said environmental economist Danny Cullenward, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, whose research focuses on carbon offsets and storage. The problems with “offsets” (a term of art describing a wide suite of activities) are definitional and fall into a few categories. Most have to do with the integrity of emission-reductions claims. Carbon credits are meant to correspond to emissions that have been avoided—say, through preventing trees from being razed—reduced, or removed, typically either through technologies such as direct air capture, which draws atmospheric carbon in through fans to then be stored in pipelines or injected underground, or “natural” methods like planting trees. Not much is natural, though, about buying up and seeding vast swathes of land with crops meant to serve a single purpose. When it comes to credits generated from avoided emissions, there’s often little way of knowing whether a tract of forest, for instance, was ever actually in danger of being developed. Landowners can say they might bulldoze trees to sell off credits—even if they had no real plans to do so. Polluters who buy credits should be able to prove what’s known as “additionality”—the idea that their purchase made possible emissions reductions that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But if the trees were never threatened, then the polluter who bought the credits hasn’t actually counteracted any of its own emissions. Third-party verifiers that judge the integrity of carbon credits have been rocked by scandals. Some two-thirds of credits on the voluntary carbon market were verified by the Verified Carbon Standard, which is administered by an NGO called Verra. A months-long investigation by The Guardian, the German outlet Die Zeit, and a nonprofit newsroom called SourceMaterial, published in January, revealed that at least 90 percent of VCS-approved credits generated in the rainforest—popular among major brands like Disney and Gucci—were worthless “phantom credits” that didn’t correspond to any reductions. (Verra has refuted the allegations.)Another major issue is who gets to claim carbon credits. If a wealthy country buys credits from a poorer one, does the country that financed those promised emissions reductions get to count them toward its climate goals? Or does the country where they were reduced? As of now, there are few protections against multiple parties staking a claim to the same credits. Even more legitimate-seeming credits generated from forestry practices are likely unable to guarantee the emissions savings promised. Where a metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted from a coal plant will stay in the atmosphere permanently, with effects felt decades down the line, a metric ton of carbon stored in trees or avoided by saving more of them can be wiped out at virtually any point. True correspondence would require that carbon to be stored permanently. That’s a difficult promise to make. Even project operators who can honestly claim to be protecting as much carbon as they say, that is—based on the size and ecological makeup of the areas in question—can’t guarantee that carbon will be stored indefinitely. California learned firsthand how that can go wrong. The state’s cap-and-trade system is premised on big polluters, including oil and gas drillers, buying up permits that correspond to emissions avoided through the protection of its vast forests. Those purchases allow a firm to make up the difference between emissions reductions in their own operations and a declining, state-mandated cap on how much they’re allowed to emit. Included in that system is a “buffer” stock of additional forest lands set aside by project developers as insurance should other credit-generating trees burn. That buffer was meant to provide 100 years of protection against wildfire risk for California forest offsets. But over the last 10 years, 95 percent of those reserves have gone up in flames, releasing between 5.7 million and 6.8 million metric tons of carbon since 2015. While the country’s largest property insurer has almost entirely stopped taking out new policies in California, citing wildfire risk, the state agency that oversees California’s carbon market still only requires forest offset project developers to set aside an additional 2 to 4 percent of trees as insurance against wildfire risk. As a Mendocino County property called Eddie Ranch burned in 2018, its owners filed paperwork with that agency—the California Air Resources Board—to be paid millions for credits generated from preserving trees that were actively burning. Months later, CARB approved the application, “basing its decision on the state of the ranch before the fire,” the Los Angeles Times reported.  “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,” Cullenward told me. “If you store carbon for less time than it takes to stabilize temperatures, that storage does not have any climate benefit.”That’s one consequence, he explains, of seeing the world like an economist. On paper, carbon stored in trees and what’s emitted from a coal plant is all just carbon. Physical reality tells a different story. Companies relying on offset credits to meet net-zero goals typically only budget for cheap, low-quality projects likely to be worthless, or worse. High-quality offsets are exceedingly rare. More permanent carbon storage remains unproven at scale but is likely to be needed “at gigaton scale,” Cullenward says, just to stabilize temperatures. After decades of scandals, there have been attempts to put some safeguards around carbon markets. Article 6.4 of the Paris Agreement creates a new U.N.-backed carbon market open to governments and companies alike to trade credits. Standards for that are being developed by a supervisory body composed of members from each U.N. regional group, and key elements will need to be approved by the countries that convene at annual U.N. climate meetings.Article 6.2 is meant to govern bilateral carbon trading—agreements reached between countries, as opposed to a market where companies and governments can shop around for offsets or offer them up for sale as needed. As of now, that’s more of a Wild West, says Jonathan Crook, who tracks negotiations for the Brussels-based watchdog Carbon Market Watch. “Countries can more or less do what they want as long as they agree to it,” he said. “There are very few rules that need to be upheld in terms of integrity and additionality.” Among the fears held by Carbon Market Watch and other advocates is that those transactions will turn into a black box. If changes agreed to at last year’s COP stick, countries will be able to keep details about trades confidential. While technical experts at the U.N. will be tasked with reviewing them, they would be forbidden from divulging information to the public. A report published by Carbon Market Watch this week puts forward a set of criteria for judging so-called negative emissions, emphasizing the need to ensure carbon is stored permanently and that such tools are used as a complement to rather than substitute for mitigation. While bilateral trades can already happen, fully fleshed-out rules under 6.2 could stand to explode the market for such deals. As bad news about carbon offsets has multiplied, so too have troubling climate science and catastrophes fueled by rising temperatures. As pressure builds internationally, dramatic land grabs like the one Blue Carbon has pushed in Liberia could become more and more common. As of now, it’s all too likely that those could do more harm than good.

Excessive Heat and Bad Coaching Are Killing Young Football Players

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. At the end of a preseason football practice in late July, Myzelle Law, a 19-year-old defensive lineman for MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas, returned to the locker room, and began showing signs of seizure. It was hot outside, but Law’s internal […]

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. At the end of a preseason football practice in late July, Myzelle Law, a 19-year-old defensive lineman for MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas, returned to the locker room, and began showing signs of seizure. It was hot outside, but Law’s internal body temperature had reached 108F, his family said. He died about a week later, of heat-related illness. Last summer, the same thing happened to the 17-year-old lineman Phillip Laster Jr, a rising senior at Brandon high school in Mississippi. In 2021, 16-year-old Drake Geiger, a player for Omaha South high school in Nebraska, died after collapsing on a practice field. They aren’t the only ones. Between 2018 and 2022, at least 11 football players in the US—at the student and professional level—have died of heat stroke. And the number of young athletes diagnosed with exertional heat illness has been increasing over the past decade or so, as unprecedented, extreme heat butts up against football season. The exertional heat illness rate in high school football was 11.4 times that of all other sports combined. This summer, the hottest on record in North America, teams across the US have been forced to reckon with a changing climate. High school and college teams in searing south-west states—where temperatures rarely dropped below 110F (43.3C) this summer – escaped to practice in the mountains, or by the coast. Teams took to practicing at dawn, before temperatures became unsafe. Friday night games were held later in the evening, or pushed to the next morning. And under the searing late summer sun, athletes and coaches are increasingly questioning the sport’s macho, push-past-the-pain mentality. Coaches acquired wet-bulb thermometers, which account for humidity as well as air temperature, to better measure heat stress, as well as cold immersion tubs to treat heat stroke. “We’re having these heatwaves that are lasting longer. They are more severe than ever before. And they’re touching geographic regions that formerly didn’t experience them,” said Jessica Murfree, a sports ecologist at the University of Cincinnati. “The opportunity to play sports like football is diminishing as a result.” For Max Clark, a sophomore quarterback for the College of Idaho, the start of each football season in August has felt a bit hotter than the last. “As each year goes by, it feels like more and more of our season is consumed with unbearable or uncomfortable heat,” he said. Practices were especially grueling last year, when Clark was a quarterback for the Arizona State Sun Devils. Practices began at 6am, so the team could wrap up before the hottest part of the day. And home games were held after sunset. “People don’t even want to sit in the stands and watch when it’s 103F,” he said. Transferring to the College of Idaho wasn’t much of an escape—Boise was trapped under a heat dome for much of July. To stave off heat illness, Clark closely monitors his nutrition throughout the day, and makes sure to stay hydrated when he’s on and off the field. “It’s about preparing for the heat, because you can’t really escape it.” he said. Players around the world, across all sports of all levels are grappling with similar realizations. The World Cup-winning midfielder Sam Mewis has written about how her performance has been impacted by extreme heat and wildfire smoke. This year, the US Open amended rules to partially shut the stadium roof in order to shade players during a searing heatwave on the east coast. But American football players are among the most vulnerable to heat illness. A 2013 study found that the exertional heat illness rate in high school football was 11.4 times that of all other sports combined. The season’s start coincides not only with the hottest period in much of North America, but also with hurricane season in the south and peak wildfire season in the west. In Idaho, many players and fans have begun to associate smoky skies with football, Clark said. And unlike cross country runners, or soccer players, footballers wear heavy padding and safety gear, which makes it harder for them to cool off. “The environment in which today’s athletes are playing sports, is wholly different from the environment when their coaches were playing.” The artificial grass that students and professionals play on causes even more complications. Studies suggest that synthetic turf can get up to 60F hotter than natural grass, radiating temperatures above 160F on summer days. Most heat illness happens right at the beginning of the season, or pre-season—when players are first returning to the field after long, off-season rests. It can take two or more weeks for their bodies to adjust to grueling outdoor workouts. Certain medications, including common ones used to treat depression and ADHD, can make players especially prone to heat illness. Linemen—the biggest, bulkiest players on the team—are extra vulnerable. “They don’t cool off as well as players with a leaner body might,” said Karissa Niehoff, CEO of the National Federation of State High School Association. “The majority of our heat illnesses in football were in the lineman position.” Nearly a dozen football players died of heat stroke between 2018 and 2022, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But the figure may be an underestimate as not all football deaths are reported to the center, or clearly linked to heat in autopsies. The risks are compounded for young athletes of color, who are more likely to go to schools and live in “heat island” neighborhoods that lack shade and green spaces. “Imagine, if you live in a place that doesn’t have air conditioning, you don’t have sufficient shade to keep you cool on your walk to school, and then your school doesn’t have air conditioning either,” said Ruth Engel, an environmental data scientist at UCLA who studies microclimates. “By the time you have to go play football, you’ve never had a chance to cool down—so you start at a huge disadvantage.” The year that the University of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair died—2018—ended up being the fourth hottest year on record globally. The team had just returned from a month-long break to start their first workout of the season. It was a balmy day—just over 80F, with 70 percent humidity, and all the players were running 110-yard sprints. By his seventh sprint, McNair started cramping up, but kept running. About an hour later, he began foaming at the mouth and about thirty minutes after that, he was loaded into an ambulance. The 19-year-old died two weeks later. “Really the main thing I kept asking myself was why?” said his father, Marty McNair. “What did I miss? What did I miss?” A 74-page independent investigation commissioned by the university placed significant blame on the university trainers and medical staff, who failed to check the wet-bulb temperature and modify workouts to reduce the risk of heat illness. Instead, the trainers pushed McNair to keep running even after he showed signs of heat stress and failed to offer life-saving cold-immersion therapy before it was too late. The university eventually agreed to pay a $3.5 million settlement to Jordan’s family, and in the years since, has adopted new policies to better recognize and prevent heat stroke. And Marty McNair started a foundation named for his son, to train coaches and athletes on heat safety. Since then, after a slew of scorching football seasons, he’s started to hear more discussion and action on heat safety, he said. “Obviously global warming is real, and that’s going to be impacting athlete’s safety. And I think now people are starting to be more receptive to that idea.” In 2021, the state adopted a law named for McNair that required the creation of new health and safety requirements in Maryland athletic programs. Lawmakers have introduced a federal version as well. Still, Marty McNair sees massive disparities in the expertise and equipment that schools have to help athletes experiencing a heat stroke. “Your Black, your brown, your rural community teams, you don’t see them checking a wet-bulb globe thermometer—because they’ve barely got the basics,” he said. But as the climate changes, he believes the culture of football will have to change as well. “I always told Jordan to be coachable. So I never taught him that if you feel uncomfortable doing something that the coach asked you to do, you don’t have to do it. You know, listen to your body first.” Zac Taylor can barely remember how his body felt, before he collapsed on the gridiron in 2018. It was hot, and his high school varsity team had been made to do about 280 “up-down” push-ups after two hours of sprints and drills as a punishment for poor performance at a scrimmage. Taylor just remembers waking up at the hospital a week later. He lost more than 50lbs by the time he was discharged, his mother Maggie Taylor recalled. She has since started a non-profit, along with other parents, that donates safety and medical equipment to school teams and teaches young athletes how to look for signs of heat exhaustion. Part of that work includes teaching players to slow down, and coaches to ease off. The idea runs counter to football culture in many ways. (“Water is for cowards,” Denzel Washington’s Coach Boone proclaims in Remember the Titans.) Players are incentivized to strain themselves beyond their limits by coaches who themselves were mentored with the same sort of tough love. “There’s this culture of ‘keep pushing’, of punishment practices and if you stop, you’ll lose your position on the team,” said Maggie Taylor. “That’s how a lot of these old school football coaches operate.” Part of the problem, says Murfree, the sports ecologist, “is the environment in which today’s athletes are playing sports, is wholly different from the environment when their coaches were playing. Year after year we’re outpacing heat records and catastrophic disaster records.” Although very young athletes—at the elementary and middle school level—are physically most prone to heat illness, it’s the teens and young adults who are most at risk for exertional heat stroke, studies have found, simply because they push past their bodies’ warning signs. “With these young adults, all they want to do is make the varsity team, to come off the bench, to get recruited by the best college teams,” said Murfree. “They want to make their coaches and parents proud. And all that can be counterproductive if the body is being overworked.” There’s an idea that young athletes are superhuman, or act like they are, McNair said. “Jordan was 6ft 5, he was 300lbs. He wore a size 16 shoe—but he was still 19 years old,” he said. “These are still kids.”

Suggested Viewing

Join us to forge
a sustainable future

Our team is always growing.
Become a partner, volunteer, sponsor, or intern today.
Let us know how you would like to get involved!

CONTACT US

sign up for our mailing list to stay informed on the latest films and environmental headlines.

Subscribers receive a free day pass for streaming Cinema Verde.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.