Monday, November 13, 2006

For Sale: CO2 By the Ton

For sale: CO2 by the ton
By Warren Cornwall

Seattle Times staff reporter

Justin Baeder paid $50 for carbon "credits" to compensate for the five tons of carbon-based gas his Saturn sedan spews out every year.

Tracy Carroll is executive director of NetGreen, a local company that sells carbon gift certificates as a way for people to get involved in a global issue.

How about a few tons of carbon dioxide in your stocking this Christmas?
It's just what some environmentally conscious people might be dreaming of: a gift certificate for 10 tons of carbon-based gas and the promise that someone else won't puff the globe-warming stuff into the atmosphere.

They're called "carbon offsets," based on the idea that individual consumers can make up for the amount of greenhouse gas they produce in everyday life by paying someone else to cut back. And they might be the next big thing in eco-friendly marketing, especially with concern about climate change going mainstream. Seattle mortgage brokers and real-estate agents are promoting "carbon neutral" home loans, promising to buy enough offsets to cover a year's worth of emissions from the house. Bellevue online travel site Expedia is selling airline tickets that come with the offsets. Even local rocker Dave Matthews is promising to make up for whatever greenhouse gases his band's traveling show creates.

Then there's the Christmas carbon gift certificate sold by NetGreen, a Seattle company.
Offsets are billed as a way for average people to do their part by opening their wallets and investing in an important world issue.

But increasingly there are worries of gimmicks tainting what has become an unchecked market that is potentially worth millions. Already companies have been bickering over whose offsets really lead to a cut in emissions elsewhere. The confusion could sour the whole idea for consumers, who might wonder whether they or simply buying an eco-illusion.

"You have to differentiate between the junk that's being bought and sold for 50 cents a ton and quality reductions that are actually having the intended environmental benefits," said Mark Trexler, president of Trexler Climate and Energy Services, a Portland-based firm that works with companies on climate-change issues.

"There's a lot of that happening: buying offsets that aren't really real."
Doing one's share

The basic concept of a carbon offset is simple: It's an eraser that people or companies can buy to make up for the tons of greenhouse gas, such as carbon dioxide, that they create by driving, flicking on the lights or flying in a jet.

So instead of selling the family car or sitting in the dark, you can, at least in theory, become "carbon neutral" by paying into a system that pumps money into carbon-reducing business ventures.

For example, Justin Baeder, a 25-year-old Seattle school administrator, paid $50 to TerraPass, a San Francisco startup company. It then buys carbon "credits" from other companies that trim their carbon emissions in various ways, like building wind turbines instead of coal-fired power plants.

That way, Baeder is supposedly cancelling the five tons of carbon-based gas that his Saturn sedan spews out every year.

The amount of carbon bought by people like Baeder is tiny compared with global emissions. One estimate is that all voluntary carbon offsets — ones that aren't required by government regulations — add up to at least 10 million metric tons a year. But in one year the U.S. alone pumped out about 7 billion metric tons.

Even so, for Baeder it was one more step he can take.

"It would be incredibly difficult for me to eliminate those emissions now, yet I feel responsible to," Baeder said. "This is a way for me to work toward doing that now."
Nebulous concept

But how does anyone know that the money is actually buying back global-warming gas? After all, Baeder never gets a box in the mail with five tons of carbon inside. All he gets is a window sticker for his Saturn.

The European Union closely regulates a carbon-offset market because it has government-enforced limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. But the U.S. has no such rules.

At least 40 Web sites currently offer offsets to individual buyers, and all of them promise the money will go toward something eco-friendly, from tree plantings to wind turbines. To set themselves apart, some companies, including TerraPass, have turned to independent auditors to allay consumer concerns.

That's what helped win over Baeder. And it was enough for travel giant Expedia, which now sells TerraPass offsets along with its plane tickets.

"They just have a really scientific approach to quantifying the amount of carbon it offsets," said Katie Deines, an Expedia spokeswoman. "It's kind of a nebulous concept for some consumers."
But that hasn't ended the debate.

Some offset dealers say they are paying to plant trees or protect forests, because trees store carbon dioxide and deforestation adds to carbon in the atmosphere. But critics point out that it takes decades for saplings to grow large enough to hold much carbon — if they survive.
Other companies promise to support renewable-energy projects such as wind farms, the benefits of which they market as "green tags."

But activists such as Mike Burnett of The Climate Trust, a Portland nonprofit that runs an offsetting program for Oregon's power plants, say those tags don't actually reduce carbon if the money just adds to a power company's profits instead of helping make a clean-energy project viable.

Sellers such as TerraPass, which uses green tags for some of its carbon offsets, say the critics are nitpicking. They say green tags reward the clean-energy industry and make it more attractive to energy developers.

"To decide that we are going to have some group of intellectuals sitting around deciding whether particular projects need the money, then we are going to stifle the market," said Rob Harmon, vice president of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a Portland nonprofit that markets green tags.

Consumer protection
Nonetheless, politicians are getting involved.
State Rep. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds, plans to push for rules for carbon offsets. She said she's driven partly because she is hoping to set up a system for Washington businesses to get tax credits for offsetting their emissions.

But she said she also sees it as a consumer-protection issue.

"You can't just hang out a shingle and say, 'These are carbon offsets,' " she said.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or

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