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Carbon offsets: Using the green cloak of 'certification' to sell

Marketing a lumber plantation in Panama, one company uses certified carbon offset claims as a green lure.

By / Staff Writer / April 20, 2010

Silva Tree promises to employ 600 people in its tree-planting project, but so far only employs 10 and provides them living quarters like these. The company markets investments in lumbering as a certified carbon offset, but it is not certified.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff

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Tres Quebradas, Panama

It's an alluring offer: Plant trees in Panama. Create carbon offsets to help the environment. Then cut the trees and make lots of money.

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That is the pitch of, a green-soaked website adorned with pictures of flourishing trees and children blowing dandelions.

Buy 660 trees in Panama for $32,500, the company promises, and you will get back at least $145,200 – a "guaranteed return" of 15 percent each year for two decades.

It is a "certified carbon offset project," the company's online promotion assures.

Except that it is not. Despite sales claims, the company says it's only in the process of applying for certification. But it claims to be in the process of applying for approval by the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS), which would – if the approval comes – offer buyers some assurance of the offset validity when the trees mature. The former deputy environmental minister of Panama leading the company's certification process, Eduardo Reyes, told the Monitor in a February interview in Panama City there's no guarantee that it will eventually be certified.

Using carbon offset certification and climate change as part of marketing and public relations aimed at investors hints at a larger problem in a burgeoning market with little oversight. And it concerns those in the industry who worry that inaccuracies at best, or fraud at worst, could blemish the reputation of the entire industry.

David Antonioli, chief executive officer of the VCS Association, which is based in Washington, D.C., says the organization has contacted one company that has claimed association with VCS for projects in Indonesia, China, and India yet was not registered with the monitoring body. "It's not too common," he says, but adds, "We are starting to hear this.… We're starting to keep track of it."

The market's integrity is at stake, he says.

At Silva Tree, officials and employees contradict one another about the status of VCS certification of the project.

A salesman who calls – from London – a few hours after one downloads a brochure from the Silva Tree website, says the carbon offsets generated by these trees are "absolutely" approved by the certifier (VCS): "We have it on our website."

They do. But, conceded Keren Katz, director of Silva Tree's London office in a February phone interview, "It is not VCS certified. If it's [in our brochure] it shouldn't be." In April the claims remained in their brochure and phone sales pitches were still claiming VCS verification.