Buying carbon offsets may ease eco-guilt but not global warming
Voluntary carbon offsets are a 'Wild West' market ripe for fraud, exaggeration, and poorly run projects that probably do little to ease global warming.
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Tens of thousands of buyers purchase carbon offsets yearly to help neutralize their global-warming pollution. They pay $5, $10, $20 or more from green-swathed sites on the Internet, or pay extra for offsets when they purchase airline tickets, rent a car, or ship a package. Companies buy them in bulk to help project a “green” image. Government agencies and civic organizations get offsets believing the purchases will make their actions “carbon neutral.”Skip to next paragraph
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They have created a worldwide market estimated by analyst Ecosystem Marketplace at $705 million in 2008. In the United States alone, offset sales have tripled in five years.
But these offsets – some sold through respected environmental organizations – come with almost no rules: There is little regulatory oversight of them in the US, no enforcement of requirements to prove their environmental claims, no certain way of measuring the carbon savings being sold, and no guarantees that planted trees or other projects will be finished or continued long enough to work.
The result, critics say, is a “Wild West” market ripe for fraud, exaggeration, and poorly run projects.
The investigation by NECIR and the Monitor found examples of irregularities in the market that include:
•An offset project in India that cleared plots of traditional tribal farmlands to build windmills for green electric power, upending some farmers’ livelihoods and – in the end – generating significantly less power than expected.
•A tree-planting project in Panama that promises profits for logging as well as calling itself a certified offset program when it is not. Few trees have even been planted.
•Scams in Australia that have prompted the alarmed government to launch a crackdown.
•A California promoter who launched a ship to spread iron dust in the South Pacific to grow carbon-sucking algae, a plan that the Environmental Protection Agency said would amount to illegal dumping at sea.
•An Israeli charity that is selling offsets that are supposed to create brand-new projects, for tree plantings it has been doing for 60 years.
Such examples are causing some supporters of carbon offsets to back off what they once saw as a promising tool to help the environment. And the troublesome record concerns those who want a national carbon cap-and-trade program in the US that would use offsets.
RAPID GROWTH RIPE FOR ABUSE
Some consumers are becoming wary. The US House of Representatives dropped plans to make its Capitol offices “carbon neutral” last year after spending $89,000 on offsets. Nike shoes abandoned them this year as untrustworthy. Responsibletravel.com, a British travel agency that claimed to be the first to offer carbon offsets in 2002 as a centerpiece of its business, has quit relying on them to help the environment. Instead, the company urges its clients to fly less.