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Carbon offsets: How a Vatican forest failed to reduce global warming

From a scheme to create an algae bloom in the South Pacific to a Vatican forest in the plains of Hungary – how one carbon offset developer's ideas failed to reduce global warming.

By Doug StruckCorrespondent / April 20, 2010

Cardinal Paul Poupard accepts a KlimaFa carbon offset certificate from Russ George in July 2007. The promise to plant a "Vatican forest" as a carbon offset for the Vatican's CO2 emissions, and thereby reduce global warming, was not fulfilled by KlimaFa.

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Budapest, Hungary

Russ George described himself as a man of vision. He certainly envisioned making money.

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The San Francisco promoter saw the profit of promising to remove carbon dioxide from the air, and selling that promise as carbon offsets to polluters, a plan he touted in interviews, press releases, and even to a congressional committee.

He just needed seed money. Nelson Skalbania, a high-profile Canadian real estate trader who had spent a year wearing a court-supervised electronic bracelet for a conviction in Canada of misappropriating $100,000 in investor funds, was just the kind of “green angel” – as Mr. George called him – who would put up the money.

With Mr. Skalbania’s backing, George bought the 152-foot research vessel Weatherbird II, repainted it with his new company name – Planktos – and hired a crew to sail for the Galapagos Islands in summer 2007.

His plan was to enlist one of nature’s carbon sponges, algae. He’d scatter a fertilizer of iron dust on 2.4 million acres of the South Pacific, he announced. In three weeks, it would produce a massive bloom of phytoplankton algae, which would inhale carbon dioxide, then sink with the carbon. George would sell his estimate of the absorbed carbon as “carbon offsets” at $5 a ton and make millions.

The Weatherbird II was under sail preparing to scatter 50 to 100 tons of iron dust when an outcry stopped it. Scientists said there was no way to tell what the iron or algae would do to the ocean environment. Diplomats cited treaties against dumping at sea. The captain of a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship threatened to ram the vessel. The Weatherbird II diverted to the Atlantic.

But George already was working on another plan: to plant millions of trees in rural Hungary and sell the carbon dioxide those trees could be expected to absorb.

He formed a Hungarian company, KlimaFa – “Climate Trees.” His publicity strategy: Present the Vatican with carbon offsets to make the Holy See carbon neutral based on the trees he’d plant. The photo of George handing Cardinal Paul Poupard the offset certificates at the Vatican on July 5, 2007, went worldwide.
In the glow of that publicity coup, George offered offsets for sale on his Planktos website. There are no public records of how much he sold. But with the growing outcry over the sea-seeding scheme, Planktos abruptly closed in December 2007.

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