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Can you buy a greener conscience?

Smokestack_in_Detroit.jpgA recent article of the same title by Alan Zarembo in the LA Times examines the current trend in purchasing carbon offsets:

The race to save the planet from global warming has spawned a budding industry of middlemen selling environmental salvation at bargain prices. The companies take millions of dollars collected from their customers and funnel them into carbon-cutting projects, such as tree farms in Ecuador, windmills in Minnesota and no-till fields in Iowa. In return, customers get to claim the reductions, known as voluntary carbon offsets, as their own. For less than $100 a year, even a Hummer can be pollution-free -- at least on paper. Driven by guilt, public relations or genuine concern over global warming, tens of thousands of people have purchased offsets to zero out their carbon impact on the planet.

But the industry is clouded by an approach to carbon accounting that makes it easy to claim reductions that didn't occur. Many projects that have received money from offset companies would have reduced emissions by the same amount anyway. The growing popularity of offsets has now prompted the Federal Trade Commission to begin looking into the $55-million-a-year industry.

Several environmental and clean energy groups have also raised concerns about verifying projects, monitoring their actual carbon reductions and ensuring that each carbon offset is not sold more than once.

It seems that the middlemen buying and selling the carbon offsets often pay a tiny fraction of a projects cost buy claim 100 % of the carbon reductions. That's how they can sell the carbon reductions so cheaply and why the carbon reductions would have occurred anyway regardless of whether or not someone purchased an offset. I assume that there are plenty of cases where purchased offsets really were integral to the success of a project (while this article focused on the more sensational examples to the contrary), but to me, this sets a pretty horrible precedent. It's an example of appearance without substance...of people cheaply satisfying their consciences without actually making much of a real difference. And when you try to convince people to make a lifestyle change that would actually make a real difference, they'll be suspicious that what you're advocating will have as little substance to it as these offsets. As Zarembo put it:

Offsets are so convenient that they may foster a false sense that global warming can be easily solved when the hard and expensive work remains undone.

The director of An Inconvenient Truth put it this way:

All of us knew when you're doing offsets that the theoretical and symbolic quality to doing this is as important as the practical quality.

I'm not sure I agree.


I write about this a lot on my site that covers global warming ( and I am typically very skeptical of carbon trading schemes.P.T. Barnum supposedly said that there was a sucker born every minute. Sometimes, when I read about carbon credits, I am not sure who the sucker is - the person buying, the person selling, or the general public for thinking it is helping!In order for credits to be feasible and to be more than a "feel good" gesture, we need solid accounting, accountability, and penalties. We have none of that now and this article makes this painfully clear. We cannot allow credits to be used for minor contributions to a project. The credit must go to the cost of reducing the greenhouse gas.

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