Green consumers and businesses who want to neutralise their carbon emissions face being ripped off by unscrupulous operators who exploit the growing market in carbon offset schemes, a Guardian investigation has revealed.
The surge in interest in such schemes, which invest millions of pounds in forestry and clean energy projects in the developing world, has created a lucrative market in carbon, which is unregulated and subject to little scrutiny. Campaigners and analysts say independent standards are urgently needed to protect consumers and to ensure the promised carbon savings are delivered. Francis Sullivan, a carbon offset expert who led attempts by banking group HSBC to neutralise its emissions, said: “There will be individuals and companies out there who think they’re doing the right thing but they’re not. I am sure that people are buying offsets in this unregulated market that are not credible. I am sure there are people buying nothing more than hot air.”
The carbon offset market worth about £60m worldwide, up from £20m in 2005. Within three years it is expected to top £300m, as a growing number of organisations and companies race to declare themselves “carbon neutral”.
Mr Sullivan said: “There are sharks out there who are literally just trying to get money off you. People were offering to sell us large chunks of the rainforest in Papua New Guinea. I don’t think it was theirs to sell.”
Concern is growing that the demand for offsets is allowing projects to claim savings they do not deserve, which are then sold on as “carbon credits”. A tree planting or windfarm project reckoned to save up 30,000 tonnes of carbon could sell an equivalent number of carbon credits for about £3 each. To provide a true carbon saving, the developers of such projects must demonstrate that it would not have happened without the investment raised by selling such credits, called additionality. The saving is then worked out against what would have happened, the baseline.
Mark Kenber of the environmental organisation the Climate Group said: “There are plenty of projects out there that are rigorous and have no problems at all. Then there are plenty that are not truly additional and you could question the baseline used. Then there are suspicions that people have sold the same ton of carbon to four or five different customers.”
By David Adam, environment correspondent