Carbon Offsets… Buyer Beware

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Carbon offsets are in. Everybody’s doing it. And Wall Street knows it, which is why here and abroad companies from London’s Marks & Spencer to Dell Computers are clamoring to make you, too, “carbon neutral.” A crowded field of for-profit offset providers have sprung up, promising to do everything from reforesting the California redwoods to building solar powered greenhouses in India.

But if Expedia can make that flight from LaGuardia to Heathrow guilt free for only ten extra bucks, how is one to know whether the offsets one has bought are really making that cross-Atlantic trip carbon even-steven? At the moment, it’s pretty much a crapshoot (with carbon offset prices ranging from $3.56 to $30 a metric ton). But the UK hopes to change that before the Greenland ice sheet melts into their precious gulfstream. The country’s Ministry of Environment announced yesterday that it would set standards for rating the new club of carbon merchants. That way would-be-offsetters can distinguish between quality outfits and those just full of hot air.

The standards will be based on the same “system used to certify credits from the established Kyoto market.” Ideally, this will mean the credits have a “clear audit trail” and be linked to real emission reductions, but don’t go back to building your carbon-neutral beachfront villas just yet.

Even long-established projects, endorsed by the World Bank and certified for cap-and-trade under Kyoto’s rules, don’t always deliver their promised bang for the buck. Last week, The Wall Street Journal ran a great piece on the chemical industry in China. A particularly dire snippet:

“Regulators worry that the carbon market is encouraging companies in the developing world to make more of the underlying refrigerant than they otherwise would—so they can produce more of the global warming gas, destroy it, and sell the credits.”

Kudos to the UK for holding the carbon traders to a higher standard, as the EU has in regulating the toxics industry. Still, for now, and for us unregulated Americans, riding a bike may be your best bet.

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