Wednesday, January 9, 2008

FTC asks if Carbon-offset Money Well-Spent

By Louise Story,

The New York Times, Story last modified Wed Jan 09 10:31:35 PST 2008

Corporations and shoppers in the United States spent more than $54 million last year on carbon offset credits toward tree planting, wind farms, solar plants and other projects to balance the emissions created by, say, using a laptop computer or flying on a jet.

But where exactly is that money going?

The Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising claims, raised the question Tuesday in its first hearing in a series on green marketing, this one focusing on carbon offsets.
As more companies use offset programs to create an environmental halo over their products, the commission said it was growing increasingly concerned that some green marketing assertions were not substantiated. Environmentalists have a word for such misleading advertising: "greenwashing." (To continue: FTC Asks .. )

My Comment: I am not philosophically opposed to the marketing of carbon offsets, despite the similarity to the selling of indulgences. If Al Gore wants to emit three times the amount of carbon in his Belle Meade mansion as the average Nashvillian, but he buys off-sets that result in the planting of carbon-eating trees and the net result is that Al Gore's net contribution to the production of carbon emissions is no greater that the average Nashvillian, that sounds reasonable to me. Money has its privileges. I accept that. If those who can consume more and emit lots of carbon, off-set their behaviour by causing someone else to emit less carbon; that is a good thing.

What has long concerned me however is the suspicion that off-sets do not really off set. People who want to ease their guilty conscience for contributing to global warming and have no way to judge the product they are purchasing are prime candidates to become victims of fraud and charlatans. How do you know that your purchase of an off-set really helped stop a rain forest from being cut down? Would the carbon reducing activity that the company sold carbon off-sets for, have happened anyway had you not purchased the off-set? Was the same off-set credit sold more than once? Was there over calculation of how much carbon would be consumed by the planting of a tree? Will the forest created by the purchase of off-sets be protected and maintained? Were those windmills going to be built anyway?

I would suspect that there is out and out fraud in the carbon off-set business. It would be surprising if there was not. When you must essentially have faith that the person you are sending your money to is honorable and when the product is an intangible, there will be people taking advantage of the gullible with a guilt complex. Just as we suspect that there are religious charlatans, we should suspect that there are environmentalist charlatans.

There does not necessarily have to be a government agency to monitor the carbon off-set business, but there needs to be a standard. Underwriters Laboratories insured we had safe electrical products for many years in the absence of government regulators. The American Medical Associations approval offered good consumer protection against medical chalatans. The Good housekeeping seal of approval gave consumers confidence in the products they purchased. The carbon off-set industry needs a stringent system for authentication and oversight before anyone takes it seriously. The FTC investigation should be welcomed by all.

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