Understanding and Evaluating Carbon Offset Programs

Carbon offsets are a way for anyone who drives a car, turns on a light or takes a plane to "offset" their carbon dioxide emissions by investing in a green project aimed at reducing the CO2 in the atmosphere.

NEW YORK -- Q: What are carbon offsets? How do I choose among the organizations and companies that sell them? And is buying carbon offsets the best way for me to help the environment?

A: Carbon offsets are a way for anyone who drives a car, turns on a light or takes a plane to "offset" their carbon dioxide emissions by investing in a green project aimed at reducing the CO2 in the atmosphere. Some of the investments offered by offset organizations: A wind farm in Nebraska, a sewage facility in Thailand and a biomass plant in Minnesota powered by the methane from cow manure.

Most offset groups offer Web calculators to compute your CO2 emissions. For instance, one couple's round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles would emit 3.01 tons of CO2, according to offsetter Sustainable Travel International.

While most organizations and companies offering offsets are still small, offsets have become a hot topic. The New Oxford American Dictionary declared "carbon neutral" its "word of the year for 2006." Whole Foods Market Inc., HSBC Finance Corp. and the Middlebury College ski team have all announced their offset purchases. The Academy Awards this year ditched its traditional gift bag in favor of a "year of carbon-balanced living" and Al and Tipper Gore say they offset their home electricity use by investing in green energy projects.

If you decide to buy offsets, you face a confusing array of choices, including for-profit companies.

"We don't have enough information and enough faith in them at this moment to steer the public and say, 'Here's what you ought to do,'" said Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club, a conservation organization.

The Tufts University Climate Initiative, which runs Tufts' efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to levels prescribed by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, examined offset schemes in a January paper.

"As is to be expected with new business opportunities, the quality and standards of voluntary offset companies vary widely -- or as one of our reviewers put it: 'It's the Wild West!'" the paper begins.

Tufts evaluated the companies on the quality of the offsets they offer, transparency, the price of a ton of carbon offsets and the accuracy of their carbon calculators. The paper gave German-based Atmosfair, Australia-based Climate Friendly and Boulder, Colo.-based Sustainable Travel International its highest rankings.

The non-profit Clean Air Cool Planet evaluated 30 offset providers in a December 2006 report. It concluded "there is considerable room for improvement, even among the top providers."

The evaluation also gave high rankings to Atmosfair, Climate Friendly and Sustainable Travel International, as well as five other organizations, two of which, NativeEnergy, LLC and The Climate Trust, are based in the United States.

Some environmentalists still question whether even the best carbon offset scheme is a real solution to climate change.

"It's a Faustian bargain," said Michael Dorsey, a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College. "It's an untested, unproven experiment."

While the Tufts Climate Initiative ranked the programs, it made a decision not to purchase offsets.

"We are spending our effort on reducing our own direct emissions," said Sarah Creighton, director of the Climate Initiative. "We feel that's a prudent use of our resources. It's taking care of our own house and not paying someone to do it for us."

One group, the Transnational Institute's Carbon Trade Watch, said in a report, "Instead of encouraging individuals and institutions to profoundly change consumption patterns as well as social, economic and political structures, we are being asked to believe that paying a little extra for certain goods and services is sufficient."

Offsets, said the Sierra Club's Hamilton, should be a last resort.

"It does no good but assuage your guilt if you drive a huge Hummer, live in a McMansion, then say you've bought offsets," said Bruce Hamilton at the Sierra Club. "First, you should eliminate trips, walk rather than driving, insulate your house."

After you've shrunk your energy use, then you can think about offsets, he said. "We need to get more money in the economy dedicated to reducing carbon emissions."


On the Net:

Climate Friendly: http://www.climatefriendly.com/

Sustainable Travel International: http://www.sustainabletravelinternational.org/

Atmosfair: http://www.atmosfair.de/index.php?id9&L3

NativeEnergy LLC: http://www.nativeenergy.com/

The Climate Trust: http://www.climatetrust.org/

Source: Associated Press

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