Probe Carbon Offsets, Congressmen Say

July 7, 2008 - 8:32 PM

(CNSNews.com) - For those who support it, it offers the reward of "carbon neutrality" without having to lower one's standard of living. To critics, it allows guilt-free pollution. Either way, the burgeoning carbon offset industry needs more oversight, say two members of Congress.

In a letter to the Government Accountability Office, Republican Reps. Tom Davis of Virginia and Darrell Issa of California asked for an investigation into emission offset programs.

About 60 different companies sell carbon offsets to U.S. consumers but operate under virtually no standards, the congressmen said. They cited reports alleging that some organizations get money for emissions that don't exist and that others make large profits on cleanups that would have taken place anyway.

"We want to understand the products sold in these markets and make sure they are doing what they say they are," said Davis, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"Offsets are becoming a convenient shortcut for individuals and industry to become 'carbon neutral.' Now that we see legislation introduced to direct the federal government to do the same thing, we need a complete picture," Davis said.

Congress is considering multiple bills this year to curb global warming, including a proposal to require federal agencies to use a portion of their budgets to buy offsets.

Climate campaigners have created a procedure that allows an individual, business or institution responsible for high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions -- blamed for climate change -- to buy "offsets." They do this by paying a levy that is supposed to go towards renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

The money can also be used to plant trees -- so-called "carbon sinks" that remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Thus, according to advocates, high energy users can pay to become "carbon neutral" -- they are making up for the amount of CO2 they produce by funding eco-friendly projects elsewhere.

Already Delta Air has announced that it will be the first "carbon neutral" airline by allowing passengers to voluntarily pay a surcharge directed toward forestry projects. Also, many electric companies allow customers to pay extra for conservation measures.

However, one environmental group's study into the issue concluded, "There are no widely-accepted standards, for example, as to what qualifies as an offset for purposes of making consumers carbon neutral."

The study by Clean Air Cool Planet, a New Hampshire-based group that partners with companies and educational institutions in the northeast to help reduce CO2 emissions, continues, "In the absence of an accepted standard, almost anyone can offer to sell you almost anything and claim that this purchase will make you carbon neutral."

Another study, by the Tufts University Climate Initiative, also voices skepticism.

"Voluntary offsets are of limited value to solve the increasing threat of climate change," the Tufts study said. "They should not be seen as a way to buy environmental pardons."

But the Tufts study goes on to say, "Voluntary offsets do have their place in spurring innovation and financing carbon reducing projects that would otherwise not have happened.

"They are especially appropriate for individuals who have done their best to reduce their personal emissions but would like to neutralize some of the unavoidable emissions that they are responsible for," it says.

Responsible people in the carbon offset industry agree that there should be greater oversight, said Ted Dodge, executive director of the National Carbon Offsets Coalition, an industry group.

"At some point, we need federal standards," Dodge told Cybercast News Service.

He understands some of the skepticism about carbon offsets but believes the industry does offer a positive step forward.

"If you want to tackle climate change, you don't take anything off the table," Dodge said. "Is it the final answer? Probably not. Technology will at some point pass us by."

Carbon offsets gained notoriety earlier this year after former Vice President Al Gore's company, Global Investment Management,
confirmed that it pays for the carbon offsets of Gore and other employees of the firm.

Gore, a leading campaigner on global warming, announced that he bought carbon offsets to compensate for his high energy use. Reports indicated that he ran up average monthly power bills of $1,200.

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