The par­doner’s tale

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

“Car­bon off­sets” are the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment’s big craze at present. That they are be­ing ex­ploited by adept self-pro­mot­ers at the ex­pense of the wellmean­ing and the dun­der­headed should sur­prise no ob­server of hu­man na­ture or mar­ket eco­nomics. One hopes Al Gore and friends rec­og­nize the cred­i­bil­ity is­sue here as they tout car­bon off­sets but do lit­tle or noth­ing to ver­ify their worth. No won­der peo­ple are call­ing off­sets mod­ern­day in­dul­gences, or snake oil.

The latest news comes by way of the Lon­don-based Fi­nan­cial Times, whose in­ves­ti­ga­tion found “wide­spread fail­ings in the new mar­kets for green­house gases,” in­clud- ing the $4 bil­lion in “vol­un­tary” off­sets now com­monly touted. The find­ings in­clude: “in­stances of peo­ple and or­ga­ni­za­tions buy­ing worth­less cred­its that do not yield any re­duc­tions in car­bon emis­sions”; “[i]ndus­trial com­pa­nies prof­it­ing from do­ing very lit­tle”; “[b]rok­ers pro­vid­ing ser­vices of ques­tion­able or no value”; and “[a] short­age of ver­i­fi­ca­tion, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for buy­ers to as­sess the cred­its’ true value.” It seems that far too few have de­ter­mined with any cer­tainty whether car­bon off­sets ac­tu­ally work be­fore the craze got un­der­way.

This was pre­dictable for sev­eral rea­sons, be­gin­ning with the nov­elty of it all. The fact that many peo­ple pur­chase off­sets not for their vi­a­bil­ity but to feel as though they’re sav­ing the planet cre­ates the kind of eco­nomic en­vi­ron­ment in which waste and fraud can thrive. At least some of the al­ter­na­tive-en­ergy projects fi­nanced by off­sets were des­tined to be re­vealed as scams. Some of them turned to the emerg­ing fad be­cause they couldn’t find more con­ven­tion­ally ra­tio­nal fi­nan­cial back­ers.

In other in­stances, com­pa­nies sim­ply cre­ated a box for the en­vi­ron­men­tally fer­vent to check. Some com­pa­nies ask con­sumers to fund the re­duc­tion of green­house gases but then pocket a large chunk of the fees col­lected in in­stances where the needed cleanup is cheap. This is ei­ther in­ge­nious or de­cep­tive, de­pend­ing on your per­spec­tive.

Even be­fore Mr. Gore be­gan cit­ing car­bon off­sets to ex­plain his fam­ily man­sion’s re­gal en­ergy con­sump­tion, peo­ple be­gan won­der­ing whether off­sets re­ally ac­com­plish much. This is not a left-right is­sue. For sup­port­ers of off­sets, it’s cred­i­bil­ity. For skep­tics, it’s an is­sue of sep­a­rat­ing the hype from the facts.

Ac­cord­ingly, the pro­mot­ers and con­sumers of car­bon off­sets have their work cut out for them. At min­i­mum, rather than tout­ing their own good con­science, Gore & Friends should first make sure that the off­sets ac­tu­ally work, and do not be­come the snake oil of the green revo­lu­tion.

Al­ter­na­tively, Mr. Gore — who so fer­vently im­plores the masses to con­sume less fuel — could try walk­ing the walk him­self for once.

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