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Confessing your carbon sins  

A cartoon in The New York Times brilliantly captured the mentality behind the latest green trend. It showed a man kneeling at the confessional praying, “Forgive me, but I have SUV’d.” The minister takes the proffered bag of money and replies, “Go thy way, thy sins are offset.”

You too can be forgiven of your carbon emitting sins and achieve the exalted status of being “carbon neutral” without trading in your SUV or cancelling that overseas vacation. It worked for Al Gore, producer of the docudrama An Inconvenient Truth. When bloggers drew attention to Al’s monster house, he conveniently purchased “carbon offsets” to fend off criticism that could have cost him the Nobel Prize. Hillary Clinton claims to be using some of her campaign donations to offset emissions from her big campaign jet. And good old Tinsel Town is making a big production out of plans to purchase carbon offsets for this year’s Oscar presentations, even though every other day of the year the average celebrity’s lifestyle yields emissions a hundred times higher than us mere mortals.

But even we mere mortals don’t have to feel left out. Football fans may be happy that the CFL purchased carbon offsets for last year’s Grey Cup. Air Canada has made arrangements for you to proffer up extra cash to buy carbon offsets for that vacation. And, if you’re in the market for a new vehicle, even an SUV, there is salvation for you. New Land Rovers come “fully CO{-2} offset” for the first 72,000 kilometres, and Volkswagen will offset your new Toureg’s emissions for the first year. If you want to spend some of those big Canadian dollars south of the border, Vail ski resort in Colorado will purchase wind energy credits so you can be carbon neutral while being lifted to the top of the mountain. These are but a few examples of the growing number of companies green washing their brands with carbon neutral advertising.

With so many individuals and companies eager to have their lifestyle sins forgiven through the miracle of carbon offsets, the obvious question is … are they actually helping the environment? It turns out that this miracle is mostly a mirage.

European signatories to the Kyoto Accord were the first to jump on the carbon offsets bandwagon. A special investigative report by London’s Financial Times revealed that, “Companies and individuals rushing to go green have been spending millions on carbon credit projects that yield few, if any, environmental benefits. Some organizations are paying for emissions reductions that don’t take place. Others are making big profits from carbon trading … for cleanups that would have happened anyway.”

The findings included murky brokers selling carbon offsets for fictitious or highly questionable projects, industrial corporations being paid for Third World cleanup projects they were required to do and “carbon cowboy” brokers selling the same credits several times over. Examples include unverifiable tree planting projects in the remotest corners of the world and a solar power project in South Africa that was never built.

The Russians also see the Europeans as an easy mark. State controlled Gazprom, Europe’s main natural gas supplier, has set up a plan which bundles carbon offsets with natural gas sold to European power utilities that have no other way to meet emissions regulations imposed under Kyoto. This leads to the perverse outcome where the owners of dirty, decrepit Soviet-era plants collect billions from the owners of some of the world’s most modern and clean facilities. Gazprom spokesman Philip Dewhurst calls Russia “the Saudi Arabia of carbon [emissions offsets].” Current estimates of the value of Russian offset credits range from $40-billion to $60-billion.

Slowly, the light of day is beginning to shine on the great Kyoto carbon offsets boondoggle. Britain’s Office of Fair Trading is investigating “excessive disparities in estimates of carbon dioxide emissions and offsetting costs, tree planting schemes which do not exist and offset brokers skimming off 60 per cent of the money paid for schemes.” The U.S Federal Trade Commission has just announced a review of advertising guidelines involving carbon offsets. Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras states: “With the rapid growth of green programs like carbon offsets, there is a heightened potential for deception.”

Meanwhile, the shares of international carbon offsets brokers like Climate Change PPLC are going up. Here in Canada, the TSX is looking to get in on the action by partnering with the Winnipeg Commodity Exchange and the Chicago Climate Exchange. Caldwell Securities CEO Brendan Caldwell has been quoted as saying “It’s the hot space to be in … At the moment, I get the feeling these things are being printed in someone’s basement, so I am a little dubious”.

Those looking to buy forgiveness for their eco-sins might heed the words of Dennis Hayes, president of a U.S. based environmental foundation: “The worst of the carbon-offset programs resemble the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences back before the Reformation. The whole game is in need of a modern Martin Luther.”

Amen brother.

Gwyn Morgan

Globe and Mail (Canada)

21 January 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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