Carbon Offsets, Shadows, and Impactful Change with Climate Expert Elaine Hsu

Carbon Offsets, Shadows, and Impactful Change with Climate Expert Elaine Hsu

There’s so much jargon in the climate space that makes getting a grip on the basics really tricky. While we’re pretty great at being a guide to all things sustainable home, we’re by no means experts at carbon management…which is why for Earth Month, we're making space for someone who actually is.

Meet Elaine Hsu, Head of Operations at Planet FWD, a business that helps other businesses manage, reduce, and neutralize their carbon output and footprint. Elaine basically spends every day working to drawdown carbon—she’s a pro.

We got to ask her the basics—demystifying (and de-jargon-ing, if that’s a word!) the world of carbon management, carbon offsets, climate neutrality, and more. Watch the full video here, or scroll down for the TLDR of the interview.


Azora Zoe Paknad: I’d love to start with an overview of Planet FWD and the work that you do. 


Elaine Hsu: I lead operations at Planet Forward and we are a business that has two different businesses: snacks and software. 

Our main business, Planet FWD, is a carbon management platform for brands. We help brands measure their carbon emissions and then reduce and offset them, setting them up on the path toward taking climate action.

We also have a separate business called Moonshot Snacks, a line of planet-friendly crackers. It’s really a proof of concept that this is what a brand can do when they put the climate at the front of their messaging and marketing.

So we have two separate teams that run these two brands and I mostly work on the Planet FWD and carbon management side of the business where we help other brands, not just our own brand.  

AZ: Full disclosure, obviously we work with Moonshot, and I demolished a whole box of Tomato Basil crackers yesterday. 


EH: We do it all the time! And we like to say that it doesn’t make your tummy hurt.


AZ: On the Planet FWD side of things, my personal cracker obsession aside, can you talk a little more about carbon management? I think we hear about carbon offsets a lot in the abstract but it would be great to hear what that actually entails, obviously it can be a lot of different things, but in broad strokes could you help paint a picture of what that means, the optionality, or the different lanes in that discipline?  


EH: Super broadly, carbon management is anything to do with managing our carbon emissions to stay within targets so we can prevent too much climate change or global warming, which would have really disastrous effects on a large portion of the population and the world. 

When you’re talking about carbon management, you’re talking about actions that can help reduce or sequester carbon emissions. A key part of doing that is measuring carbon emissions. So, it’s measuring, reducing, and sequestering carbon emissions.

Specifically when it comes to what we do at Planet FWD, we help companies understand their carbon emissions and start taking actions to reduce and offset those emissions. We estimate their current emissions and help them figure out where they can reduce them. From there, we connect brands to offset providers that meet our standards for truly reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. 


Taking a step back, what are carbon offsets? They’re basically people or businesses paying for somebody else to sequester a certain amount of carbon, which usually gets measured in tons. There are a couple different kinds of offsets. There’s a kind of offset which is avoidance—it’s preventing people from emitting more carbon dioxide; you pay someone to not emit. You might pay somebody, traditionally, to not cut down a section of forest. Or, you could actually pay somebody to plant a forest and that’s a reforestation offset. There’s also lots of technology coming along that’s using technology to sequester carbon, like developing things that pull carbon out of thin air and sequester it in rock or cement. All of those are carbon offsets.

There are also different levels of quality in terms of what an offset is. When we at Planet FWD think about the quality of offsets, what we really want to do, and what most people really want to do, is make sure that when you’re paying somebody to keep carbon out of the atmosphere, that that money is actually resulting in additional carbon being removed from the atmosphere. 

There are some types of carbon offsets that maybe made sense at one point in time, but right now due to the economics of it, don’t make sense anymore. A good example of this is wind and solar energy offsets. When wind and solar were first developed, it was really expensive. In order for this kind of energy to be developed, carbon offsets really helped them get off the ground, which made sense at that point to say “hey, if I purchase a carbon offset for this, I’m actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere because we’re producing energy with wind and solar instead of fossil fuels”. At this point in time, wind and solar were cheap enough that it was at price parody with a lot of fossil fuels. If you were to purchase a carbon credit that’s based on wind and solar energy now, you’re not necessarily decreasing the amount of total carbon in the atmosphere. So that’s the kind of offset that we at Planet FWD, for example, would not approve as part of our offset standards. 

Then, there are some more complicated offsets like deforestation—you’re paying somebody not to cut down a tree. There’s something called leakage and you want to make sure that just because you’re paying somebody to not cut down a tree here, doesn’t mean that the same amount of trees won’t get cut down elsewhere—so we really screen for that as well. 

We also think about permanence. What if you’re paying for carbon credits to plant a forest and then that forest burns down 10 years later? We don’t want to see it, but we know it can happen. If that happens, what happens to all of those carbon credits? We really look for offset providers that have created insurance around this. So maybe they are selling 100 tons of carbon offsets, but they actually planted trees for 150 tons of carbon offsets. So, if a portion of that forest burns, those offsets still exist. You want to make sure that they really do exist, otherwise, we’re not actually having the impact that we want to have. 

That’s kind of the carbon offset story, and they can get really complicated when you get into the details.


AZ: Yeah, they really can. That’s why some people are maybe a little bit hazy about the details. This was super helpful and once you have the building blocks, the rest starts to come together.

I feel like offsets often get treated as almost more of a B2B transaction. But that’s not completely true, because, to your point, individuals can buy offsets. But for the most part, it tends to be businesses. One of the things I thought was really interesting about Planet FWD and your messaging is that 60% of global emissions come from consumer use. Obviously, consumer use means we’re paying for goods and services that businesses are selling to us—for the most part. 

What context do you think is appropriate for or helpful that folks might not know as it pertains to their personal engagement with offsets? Obviously, we can buy them if you’re an individual, but what are the different use cases? Short of working at a company or somehow being affiliated with an organization that is able to contribute more substantially, how should people plan to engage with offsets?


EH: I personally am supportive of individuals purchasing offsets. It helps you get more engaged in the process. I think if you talk about it with your friends or family, it helps them get more engaged with the process, too. There are a lot of different platforms out there that help you do that. There are very simple ones where you just estimate your carbon footprint for the whole year and then you purchase offsets once a year. There are also some new programs out there that are measuring your credit card transactions and using that to help you offset your carbon emissions.

Frankly, I think most of these options are probably good options for an individual. If you want to do extra research, I would recommend looking for offsets that are more about carbon removal than carbon avoidance. Those are the kinds of things where you’re actually planting trees or pulling carbon out of the atmosphere rather than avoiding doing something that emits. A lot of those avoidance offsets are going to end up being less impactful, especially if we have more legislation around companies needing to reduce their carbon emissions anyway.


AZ: That makes a lot of sense, especially if you are thinking about contributing to carbon offset, you’ve probably already thought about avoidance in your life when it comes to personal consumption. 


EH: Most of the time, when people say carbon, what we really mean is carbon dioxide equivalents. There are a lot of different greenhouse gasses. You probably hear about methane and nitrous oxide—the international community is really standard around equivalences for this. So we say carbon as shorthand, but really what we mean, and what most people mean, are all of these different greenhouse gasses. 

 AZ: That’s a very helpful clarification. I also use them interchangeably and did not consider that would be confusing…until this moment. 

Especially the conversation about methane feels like there’s more visibility there than before. I don’t know if that’s because we do a lot of work in talking about composting—it feels like one of the easiest ways to get started. 

There are different conversations about methane’s rate of warming, being able to measure it in different ways, and measuring impact in different ways; but nobody talks about the fact that sometimes we lump them all together in one word. 


EH: You can purchase a carbon offset that’s actually a methane offset.

I hope that most programs would explain to you what their offsets are doing. This is one of my general messages: when someone gives you more specificity, it is more likely to be true. If an organization isn’t being very specific about what they’re doing, I’m less inclined to trust what they’re doing. Companies are legally obliged to not lie to you, so if someone is giving you a lot of specifics, that means they are actually doing those specifics. If someone is not giving you any specifics, then they could be doing anything.


AZ: That’s a great standard in general, but especially here. 

The messaging for Planet FWD has really been around helping businesses move towards neutrality, maybe ultimately climate positivity? I’d love to know a little bit more about what that actually is like in the day-to-day when we talk about working in carbon management. Are you primarily focused on finding the right offset programs, or the right offerings to match with the right client or business? What is that journey like?


EH: A really big part of it is looking at measuring and reducing. How it works is when we work with brands to estimate their carbon footprint, we can estimate it for their overall company or for specific products. What we’re really looking for are the biggest sources of their emissions. For most consumer goods, it’s going to be the supply chain emissions, so the materials that they put in. Also, their distributions. In some situations, it could be consumer use. 

In apparel, for example, typically the biggest footprint can actually come from washing the clothes and not from the manufacturing. It’s really important for a brand to understand its footprint from, what we call, cradle to grave. So when all of the materials start being extracted to when they go into end of life–whether that is landfill, recycled, or reused in some way.

When we do a product assessment, we’ll assess the products from cradle to grave. When we do a company assessment, we’re still assessing those different components, but it’s broken out a little differently. We work with companies to gather that data. They might not always have that information about, “where is this grown”. I think a lot of folks are discovering that information now. They have that information in their documentation, but it might not be top of mind. So we help them locate that information to input into our system and help them calculate their carbon footprint.

Then we look at the biggest areas of impact and how they can reduce those areas of impact. We also look at the easiest way to reduce. For a lot of folks, the easiest way to reduce is to look at renewable energy, or how they’re conducting transportation. We might recommend switching manufacturing to renewable energy to potentially reduce your footprint by 10%, or shipping by boat instead of by air to reduce your footprint by 20%, if you change this packaging in this way you might reduce your footprint by 3% or 5%. I think the really common misconception that folks have is that transportation and packaging make up a really large part of the footprint. What we actually find in most cases is that those are not as significant as ingredients and materials, as well as consumer use, depending on the product.

Companies will work with us to start to understand these things, and they’ll also work with us if they’re doing carbon neutrality. They’ll commit to taking a certain action like working with their suppliers or partners to take action, or they’ll commit to communicating more clearly with consumers about their footprint. Anybody working with Planet FWD actually has to post their carbon footprint, for a specific product or their company as a whole, on our website along with the actions they’re committing to. We believe in a lot of transparency and a lot of information being available. Once it’s there, it's out there and you’ve said it. 

For emissions that can’t be reduced, by the way, which truthfully is most of them, we help companies navigate which offsets are going to be the most impactful or we’re sure are going to have that impact. That’s honestly a pretty good near-term solution. Ideally, the end goal is that companies are continuing to work towards reducing emissions within their own supply chains and operations because there are only so many offsets the world can produce. Producers of any good also need to work on reducing to help meet our world’s climate goals. Quantifying these emissions and really understanding them is the most important first step to reducing offsets. So that’s what we help brands do.


AZ: What do you wish that more people knew or understood about your work, neutrality, carbon emissions, or the climate conversation in general? It doesn’t have to be your day-to-day, Google Calendar stuff, but what do you wish there was a better understanding baseline for?


EH: This stuff can get so complicated, right, and you can really get lost in all of these little details that need to be accounted for. Honestly, it can be easy to feel kind of meh, like there’s nothing I can do as one person with all of the actions we need to take. I actually don’t think that’s true—I think that our individual actions do matter, but I don’t think that we should walk around carrying guilt about these little things. As an individual, let go of any guilt you have about whether that plastic bag gets recycled and other little things like that. At the end of the day, it’s not going to be hugely impactful. There are things that you can do for your personal footprint, but I do want to talk about this concept that people are talking about with your climate shadow. What else do you do that impacts the system around you that helps impact climate change? Those are what I think are often overlooked. There’s been a lot of messaging towards individuals that it’s your individual responsibility to reduce your individual footprint, but we all live in a system and the biggest picture thing we can do is impact the system. 

As an individual, the five most impactful things that you can do to reduce your carbon footprint—and not all of these are palatable—are:

1) Having fewer children.

2) Being car-free.

3) Minimizing your plane travel.

4) Using green energy.

5) Eating a plant-based diet.

        Not all of these are feasible or easy for people, but some of these really are. Purchasing green energy is actually something that most of us can do and most can afford to do. If you’re above the poverty line, you can probably afford to purchase green energy because it doesn’t necessarily cost that much more if you just log on with your energy provider and choose that option.

        Eating a plant-based diet, we’ve talked about this before. You can just shift to a more plant-based diet…it’s not an either-or. You can choose to incorporate more plants in your diet and less meat, and that can be really impactful, even if you don’t go all the way.

        The same thing with cars and plane travel, you can use those things to a degree, you don’t have to flip a switch on them. So those are the top 5 things that I think about because when you think about all the little things, you can get stuck.


        AZ: I really like the conversation that I feel like is not happening as loudly as it could be but is getting some pickup, around the degrees of change that you can make. Like you’d be down to go vegan, but you can’t give up cheese. So don’t give up cheese, the other things still matter! If every once in a while, you need the grilled cheese… go off! 


        EH: I had a conversation with a friend once and he was like “why does it matter if I turn off the lights, we’re all doomed anyway?” I said it may or may not matter that you turn off the lights, but they’re really are so many things that you can do and one of them is just talking to friends about that kind of perspective. It’s really easy to think that’s the case, but if there’s anything we know from our climate models, it is that all of these different actions do matter, and talking to people in your circle about the climate, what you’re doing, what they can do, and how it may not be that hard for them, really does change the consciousness. The bigger action you can also take is getting involved with your elected officials and influencing their choices—that has a HUGE impact as well. In California, there’s a bill for all companies that operate or have business in California to disclose their emissions.The SEC also recently proposed a requirement for disclosing your emissions—and these are all really really important first steps. These are all things that are a result of many different people pushing for this. You may not think your individual actions have an impact, but you individually as part of a collective can have that impact and it does matter.


        AZ: 100%—I think it definitely matters. I would so much rather that, given a choice, someone deeply engaged with the policy instead of being stressed about getting rid of their car or swapping for an EV. If you can put a law into effect, that’s big.

        I think that’s all super helpful, especially the top 5 things we can do to reduce. 

        It is a very scary time to be alive, I don’t want to minimize that anxiety. I feel lucky, since we’re in the startup space, that we get to interact with so many folks that are floating around the start-up universe and the sustainability arena. There have never been more funded, good ideas to try and solve the problem. There have never been larger climate funds in the venture capital world than there are in this exact moment and larger ones tomorrow. There are really interesting things. On the energy side, there’s one start-up that has an amazing founder—it’s called Wildgrid. Essentially, they help demystify switching to renewable energy and make it a little bit easier since it is a little bit of a weird, red-tape, archaic industry. To your point, it’s really not that hard and it shouldn’t be more expensive than fossil fuels for the most part. It still is scary to anyone, but I’ve found it super helpful.

        You mentioned climate shadows. Before we go, I want to hear more about that. Can you explain what that means?


        EH: We are really focused on our climate footprint—this is the exact amount of emissions that I am personally responsible for. But, the idea of the climate shadow is focused on the things you’re doing that impact the overall climate. For example, all of these things that we’ve been talking about like participating with your local legislation or talking to friends, following a more plant-based diet that influences your friends to do so. That’s this concept of the shadow you cast versus the direct impact you have. So if your footprint is the weight of your body on the world, the shadow is the more diffused impact of what you do.


        AZ: Oh my gosh, I hope I have a huge one..that would be my dream! 


        EH: I think that’s probably the case with Goldune!


        AZ: I don’t know but that’s my dream, I hope so. 

        Is there anything else that you wish people knew or that you want to leave folks with that has to do with your work, Planet FWD, or the climate in general?


        EH: It’s a really exciting time. There’s so much more action in this space than there was 10 or 15 years ago. And 10 or 15 years ago was a time when there was a big surge in action around renewable energy, carbon credits, and all this stuff. That was kind of an industry shift at that point in time. What’s happening now is that this idea of climate change and the impacts of climate change are really fully part of everybody’s consciousness. We’re seeing the impacts first-hand with the different effects on the weather, civil instability and civil war, and I think as scary as it is to live in these times, this is the time in which people are really motivated to take action. It’s really exciting to be working alongside all of these people that are trying to take action and trying to make sure that we don’t exceed too much past our climate goals…that we’re working together. There’s a lot of people working together on this and that always gives me hope, even if I’m feeling down about something.


        AZ: Me too, I think it’s easy to forget it and it’s not the point that gets hammered home quite so often, but it’s true. We’ve never been more motivated, smart, hard-working people trying to fix things.   


        This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity and length. Love Elaine’s carbon intel as much as we do? Find Planet FWD hereand find our favorite crackers, also made by their team, here
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