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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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Mr. Skar, of Greenpeace, says the industry is rife with financial speculators in flannel shirts: “Carbon cowboys. People from the most bizarre backgrounds. People who have no prior interest in the environment.”

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The theory of carbon offsets is straightforward. For example, a traveler who generates a ton of carbon dioxide pollution by driving about 2,000 miles in an average car can purchase an offset to pay for the reduction of a ton of carbon dioxide somewhere else in the world. The offset might promise that trees will be planted, methane digesters will be installed on farms, or new windmills will be financed by the purchase.

Where the reduction occurs doesn’t matter, proponents argue, as long the atmosphere is relieved of that ton of carbon. Others are queasy about the notion of paying to relieve their environmental responsibility.

Carol King Cummings, a Polson, Mont., retiree thinks of the offset concept this way: “My great-great-grandfather paid someone to fight for him in the Union Army in the US Civil War. This always embarrassed me a little. Carbon offsets strike me the same way.”

For the theory to work, several requirements must be met. The most vexing is that the traveler’s purchase must create a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions that would not have happened without the traveler’s money. If the traveler pays for something that was going to be done anyway, that is double-counting and the traveler’s emissions are not offset.

This requirement of “additionality” has been difficult to apply, and critics say many projects are selling offsets to reap bonus profits for projects already being created for other purposes.

Windmill farms, for example, typically are built only if they can sell the electricity and also get substantial government subsidies or tax credits. On expensive projects like these, offset developers typically provide a small portion of the construction cost. Critics say the projects would probably go ahead with other funding, so developers should not claim credit for creating new carbon reductions.

“It might sound great, like a wind farm. Who can be against a wind farm?” says Anja Kollmuss, who has studied offsets for the nonprofit Stockholm Environmental Institute. “But wind farms are very likely to have been built for something else. For the consumer, it’s incredibly difficult to understand.”

The Jewish National Fund (JNF), for example, has been urging Jews worldwide to “plant a tree in Israel” since 1948. Now, it is offering a “GoNeutral” calculator to figure how many trees one needs to offset one’s carbon emissions. JNF says one $10 tree over a lifetime of 70 years will absorb one ton of emissions.

“What the JNF is doing carbon-wise is not additional. Anything you do that is business-as-usual is not eligible for a carbon-offset purchase,” protests Eyal Biger, the founder of the Good Energy Initiative, a nonprofit Israeli organization that also sells offsets for trees. Mr. Biger’s group contends its trees are planted in urban areas, and are therefore new and additional.

Rabbi Eric Lankin, a JNF official, contends the GoNeutral purchases pay to plant trees beyond the group’s business-as-usual quota. But he acknowledges the rules on trees and offsets are hazy: “The challenge is that this is not an exact science.”

Others reject the theoretical underpinning of offsets: They are created by claiming to do something that would not normally have been done, and then predicting how much carbon would be produced with – and without – that action.