Carbon offsets are for those who want to feel better about the impact they’re having on the environment.
The idea is simple: If you can’t – or don’t want to – reduce your carbon emissions, you pay someone to plant trees, which soak up carbon, or you invest in solar plants, wind farms or other activities that reduce emissions.
It works for individuals trying to salve their environmental consciences or corporations trying to burnish their green image.
But as these offsets become more popular – automakers, computer manufacturers and others are offering them to consumers to offset the emissions from their products – the question becomes whether the offsets people and corporations buy actually mean anything.
“The carbon market is a leading example of the challenge of making sure that when people put their money into what they hope will improve their planet, that there is real follow-through,” Daniel C. Esty, director of the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale University, told The New York Times.
The Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising claims, is taking a belated interest in the topic. The FTC hasn’t updated its environmental advertising guidelines – its Green Guides – since 1998.
The guidelines don’t deal with concepts like offsets, renewable energy or sustainability. With the growth of green marketing, “there’s a heightened potential for deception,” FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras told The Times.
The FTC is asking for help to minimize that potential. It won’t be easy. “Greenwashing” – making unfounded environmental claims – isn’t always easy to spot.
A Business Week article last year, for instance, found that TerraPass, a carbon offset marketer, claims a methane-extraction system at a huge Arkansas dump as one source of offsets. (Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.)
But it turns out that the landfill operator essentially was forced by the state to install that system to keep the methane from contaminating groundwater. It had nothing to do with reducing carbon emissions – that was just a happy side-effect.
As Business Week concluded, “it appears that the main effects of the TerraPass offsets in this instance are to salve guilty celebrity consciences and provide Waste Management, a $13 billion company based in Houston, with some extra revenue.”
Whatever new guidelines the FTC comes up with, perhaps the lesson here should be that a checkbook is no substitute for lifestyle changes that actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
13 January 2008
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