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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Even offset providers acknowledge the industry is rife with abuses. “There’s a lot of bad stuff going around,” says Roger Ryall, who sells offsets to car dealerships in Canada. “There are guys out there planting grass and trying to sell offsets from it. You have to be careful.”Skip to next paragraph
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CALCULATE YOUR FOOTPRINT
Most offset sellers offer their products with an online sales pitch urging customers to “calculate your carbon footprint” with the site’s calculator and then to buy the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emissions reductions. But results of those calculators vary widely, a study by Ms. Kollmuss at the Stockholm Environmental Institute found. Prices of carbon range from $1 to $47 a ton, according to Ecosystem Marketplace, which has done the only comprehensive financial study of voluntary offsets.
In answer to such complaints, some independent organizations – such as the Voluntary Carbon Standard, Plan Vivo, and Gold Standard – offer their seal of approval to projects. Offset providers say nervous customers should look for those certifications.
But the certifications remain voluntary, and the standards of the organizations vary – there were at least 17 of them in 2009. Many conduct only on-paper reviews of the offset projects, with no physical inspection of the project nor follow-up to see if the claimed reductions really occurred, Kollmuss says.
Nor is there regulatory verification of companies’ claims of certification. In its online brochure Silva Tree claims approval from the most widely known certification, Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS), in labeling its Panama project a “VCS Carbon Offset.” Questioned about the claim, Silva Tree officials acknowledge they are not certified, but are in the process of applying, and anticipate selling offsets in the future. Other offset sellers use vague wording about “VCS standards” to imply certification they do not have. “Proving the legitimacy of carbon offset projects remains a major issue,” said a 2009 Ecosystem Marketplace report.
David Hales, who has represented the US in international environmental negotiations and now is president of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, headed a 2008 effort of college presidents to draw up guidelines for offset purchases by colleges and universities. None of the certifications met the standards of his group.
“The market is dominated by junk,” Mr. Hales says. At his own college, he set students to the project of picking offsets to counteract emissions, and they found the effort a quagmire.
“It almost takes a full-time staff to determine exactly what you are getting. Even then, there is a range of uncertainties,” Hales says. “It’s truly a ‘buyer beware’ situation.
1. GLOBAL INVESTIGATION: Buying carbon offsets may ease eco-guilt but not global warming