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Carbon Offsets May Ease Our Guilty Consciences But Do They Really Help the Environment?

The problem isn't just that the offset mechanism lacks transparency and consistency; it's also that addressing those issues can easily distract from more meaningful solutions.

This article is adapted from Heather Rogers's new book, Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution (Scribner). Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

Even though climate legislation is stalled in Congress, the business of voluntary carbon offsets is thriving, thanks to the abundant guilt and concern of the world's most wasteful consumers. Not only does Al Gore pay to counteract his heat-trapping gases; so do Hillary Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and high-profile gatherings including the Oscars. Companies have formed mostly in the United States, Europe and Canada to sell the notional product that is offsets. Now it seems easy for celebrities, businesses and regular consumers to neutralize the damage from burning electricity, hopping a plane or hitting the highway.

Carbon-offset firms have no storefronts; they promote themselves and sell their wares on the Internet. Visit one of their sites, calculate your emissions, fork over a fee via credit card and the firm will send a portion of your payment to an earth-friendly project. Greenhouse gases released in high-consuming Western countries can be balanced out anywhere; as they say in the industry, the atmosphere isn't picky about where carbon is cut. Using cheap land and labor in developing countries offers more bang for the buck, so that's where most efforts are carried out. China and India have the vast majority of offset projects, with the latter hosting nearly a quarter of all such ventures globally.

Offset companies' web pages typically feature photos of deep blue skies, towering windmills and banks of resplendent solar panels — the antithesis of pollution. On its site, the trusted Swiss offsetter Myclimate reassuringly tenders "climate protection." Among its clients the company counts Coca-Cola, Ben & Jerry's, Unilever and Virgin Atlantic. Another big offset player, The CarbonNeutral Company, has serviced the likes of Brad Pitt and the Rolling Stones, Coldplay, Jake Gyllenhaal and Sky, the UK-based television and communications firm. The CarbonNeutral Company posits that settling one's carbon debt is relatively simple. Its site states the CO2 offsetting promise: "Buying one tonne of carbon offsets means there will be one less tonne of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there would otherwise have been." Paying to restore carbon balance, an act of consumption itself, signals that we can keep consuming and save the planet.

But carbon offsets are a dubious enterprise. To begin with, they don't cut greenhouse gases immediately but only over the life of a project, and that can take years — some tree-planting efforts need a century to do the work. And a project is effective only if it's successfully followed through; trees can die or get cut down, unforeseen ecological destruction might be triggered or the projects may simply go unbuilt. As for keeping track of all this, although many retail offsetters choose to get third-party certification to assure quality, they are not obliged to do so, because the voluntary market is largely unregulated. These projects aren't required by law to meet any standards or have follow-up assessments to ascertain their efficacy. (Offsets under the Kyoto Protocol are regulated, but inspectors charged with this oversight don't always maintain the highest standards.)

So what's actually going on in the places where these guilt- and carbon-scrubbing projects materialize? What impacts are offset ventures having on local people and the regional environment? I visited the state of Karnataka in southern India to better understand what transpires after a consumer sitting at her computer in New York City, Toronto or London clicks the Offset My Carbon Now button and pays with a credit card.