Seeking carbon offsets for global warming? Buyer beware

People trying to reduce their carbon footprint through carbon-offset schemes had best check whether such projects are real. Many are fraudulent or mismanaged. The lesson? Curbing climate change through cap-and-trade schemes will need rigorous oversight.

Thinking of buying a carbon offset to ease any guilt from that flight, which sent planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Just drop into any convenient website that assures you that, for a few dollars, your indulgent burning of jet fuel will be offset by planting a tree, erecting a windmill, or capturing farm animal methane – almost anywhere in the world.

Too good to be true? An investigation of voluntary carbon-offset schemes by The Christian Science Monitor and The New England Center for Investigative Reporting shows many such deals may be fraudulent or mismanaged. Windmills may not be built or trees planted. Or they would have been built or planted anyway, regardless of the money provided. (To read the news story, click here.)

Good-hearted individuals and companies looking to go "green" by buying offsets are buying mostly on faith. They can look to independent organizations such as the Voluntary Carbon Standard that examine offset plans and offer a seal of approval. But for the most part it's "buyer beware."

That's troubling news as Congress focuses on climate-change bills that would employ a "cap and trade" concept. The "cap" holds down CO2 emissions by industry and the "trade" allows offsets to be bought and sold.

A successful US cap-and-trade program in the 1990s reduced emissions known to cause acid rain from coal-burning plants. But the program was limited in its scope, and simple. Relatively few plants slowly switched to low-sulfur coal or added scrubbers. Scaling up this idea for greenhouse-gas emissions – and allowing the trading of permits for green projects around the world – is asking for trouble. Public confidence in curbing global warming could nose-dive if a cap-and-trade plan results in a slew of dubious schemes.

One climate bill reportedly to be introduced in the Senate may dilute a cap-and-trade system by also offering a gasoline tax – a proven way to cut the burning of fossil fuels but one that may be anathema to voters.

Before Congress leaps into cap-and-trade, it should take a lesson from voluntary offsets: Buyer beware.

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