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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“The trouble is nobody can really verify – unless you can read a crystal ball –what would have happened. There are an infinite number of possibilities,” says Ms. Kill, at FERN.Skip to next paragraph
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Offsets also are required to be permanent, or reasonably close to it. Carbon dioxide, the largest component of greenhouse gases, may last for 100 years in the atmosphere. But offsetting a ton of carbon dioxide by planting trees, vulnerable to destruction, does not assure permanence.
“Trees get blown down by wind. They burn in forest fires. They are eaten up by insects. The trees are harvested, or they die from old age,” says Kill. “Forests are probably the worst pick” for offsets. They are, however, a favorite of promoters because of their symbolic appeal. According to Ecosystem Marketplace, forestry projects in 2008 spawned an estimated 5 million tons of offsets at an average price of $8.44 per ton.
But if forests are cut or destroyed, there is no legal requirement – and little incentive – for the buyer or the seller to replace the lost carbon savings, Kill notes.
“You take a holiday and you want to offset your flight. You go to one of these terminals or online, and you buy your carbon credits. What’s the potential of you as an individual – unless you are extremely dedicated or skilled – to find out what exactly is happening to the project in five or 10 years’ time?” Kill asks.
PAYING NOT TO CUT TREES
Critics also question where the money provided by offset purchases really goes. With no regulatory oversight, there is no disclosure of profit margins, and the finances of offset providers are shrouded in claims of confidentiality. The analytic firm Ecosystem Marketplace says the industry “resembles the Wall Street of the 1800s – with information closely guarded by those who profit from it.”
The San Francisco offset provider 3Degrees, for example, sells offsets through an ATM-like kiosk recently installed, with much publicity, at the San Francisco International Airport. Travelers can use the machine to offset emissions from their flights – at $13.50 a carbon ton – expecting to buy a new carbon savings somewhere.
In fact, they are paying 3Degrees to send money to two environmental groups – The Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund – for a promise not to cut down trees on land the environmental groups already own. The groups estimate how much carbon would be lost if they opened their northern California forest to logging, and they sell that amount as an “offset.”
Jason Brown, a spokesman for 3Degrees, declined to say how the offset sales are split.
Silva Tree, a promoter that sells plots of trees in Panama, takes the opposite tack. It promises investors that it will plant trees in Panama that will be logged in five years, bringing “guaranteed” returns of $145,200 if they pay $32,500 now for a hectare (2.5 acres) with 660 trees. Investors cannot buy offsets. But Silva Tree advertising and telephone sales personnel say that the project involves, or will involve, certified carbon offsets. Sales representatives suggest that hundreds of acres of the “biggest reforestation project in Panama” have been planted. In a visit to the site with Silva Tree contractors in February, The Monitor found only about 25 acres planted.
Such uncertainties worry officials like Javier Arias, the environmental minister of Panama. The government must be vigilant so that what companies “say is going to happen, must happen,” he said in an interview. “Everybody pays for a bad apple.”