Damning evidence against offsets?

Last week, the Financial Times reported findings from an investigation it conducted into the carbon offset market. And it aint pretty.

The growing political salience of environmental politics has sparked a “green gold rush”, which has seen a dramatic expansion in the number of businesses offering both companies and individuals the chance to go “carbon neutral”, offsetting their own energy use by buying carbon credits that cancel out their contribution to global warming.

The burgeoning regulated market for carbon credits is expected to more than double in size to about $68.2bn by 2010, with the unregulated voluntary sector rising to $4bn in the same period.

The FT investigation found:

■ Widespread instances of people and organisations buying worthless credits that do not yield any reductions in carbon emissions.

■ Industrial companies profiting from doing very little – or from gaining carbon credits on the basis of efficiency gains from which they have already benefited substantially.

■ Brokers providing services of questionable or no value.

■ A shortage of verification, making it difficult for buyers to assess the true value of carbon credits.

■ Companies and individuals being charged over the odds for the private purchase of European Union carbon permits that have plummeted in value because they do not result in emissions cuts.

Should this be surprising? No. What else would you expect from a new, rapidly growing market that’s totally unregulated? It would be nice to think that organizations would support or develop carbon offset projects because it’s the right thing to do, and many are. But like all things, greed and incompetence have reared their ugly heads.

I’m no great fan of carbon offsets, with the exception of those for air travel. Why? Because I’d rather see people invest their time and money in conservation and energy efficiency. A person offsetting their emissions may be less likely to take other actions. But I also believe that people should be challenged to address their own responsibility first. We don’t individually control the markets, but collectively we do. And an educated, personally invested population is going to demand more from its political leadership, its community, and industries. Offsets don’t provide the same kind of opportunity for engagement.

That said, news like this is distressing in that I fear that all “green” efforts will be painted questionable.

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