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Blowing Smoke: A new investigation into fraudulent carbon offsets

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Blowing Smoke: A new investigation into fraudulent carbon offsetsA six-part series in the latest issue of Christian Science Monitor investigates carbon offsets. The researchers look at several offset projects and conclude that “Carbon offsets are the environmental equivalent of financial derivatives: complex, unregulated, unchecked and – in many cases – not worth their price.”

The six-part series is the result of a four-month investigation carried out by The Christian Science Monitor and The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR). It was written by Doug Struck of NECIR with contributions from reporters Ben Arnoldy in India, Sara Miller Llana in Panama, Ilene R. Prusher in Israel, Kathy Marks in Australia, and Katy Jordan and Tyler Maltbie in Boston.

Struck and his team reported on the following:

  • A tree planting project in Hungary that was supposed to make the Vatican “carbon neutral” but in fact no trees have been planted. The same developer, Russ George, also planned to dump iron filings in the South Pacific, aiming to grow a giant algal bloom, which would in theory absorb carbon.
  • A windfarm offset project in India, developed by Suzlon Energy Ltd. that cleared plots of traditional tribal farmlands. Local livelihoods were impacted and about 12,000 trees were cut to make way for the turbines. The windfarm ended up generating significantly less power than planned and has led to legal battles and a government investigation.
  • A tree-planting project in Panama, run by a company called Silva Tree, that promises investors profits from logging, when the trees are large enough. It also creates carbon credits, although it is not clear who will actually own the credits. Silva Tree claims that its project is certified under the Voluntary Carbon Standard, but it has so far only applied for certification. Silva Tree also claims to be planting large areas. “In fact, few trees have been planted,” the researchers found.
  • Offset scams in Australia that have led to a government clampdown against a company called GreenSwitch, among others.
  • A charity in Israel that is attempting to sell carbon credits for tree planting projects it has been running for 60 years.
  • The offsets offered by Native Energy, whose customers include Ben and Jerry’s, the Dave Matthews Band, Jon Bon Jovi, the Democratic National Committee, and the makers of Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth.” But the projects funded by Native Energy promise only to reduce emissions gradually over a 20 year period. Offsetting emissions 20 years into the future makes little or no sense from a climate perspective.

In the introduction to the series of articles, Struck gives another example of an offset project:

The San Francisco offset provider 3Degrees, for example, sells offsets through an ATM-like kiosk recently installed, with much publicity, at the San Francisco International Airport. Travelers can use the machine to offset emissions from their flights – at $13.50 a carbon ton – expecting to buy a new carbon savings somewhere.

In fact, they are paying 3Degrees to send money to two environmental groups – The Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund – for a promise not to cut down trees on land the environmental groups already own. The groups estimate how much carbon would be lost if they opened their northern California forest to logging, and they sell that amount as an “offset.”

Jason Brown, a spokesman for 3Degrees, declined to say how the offset sales are split.

The entire report can be downloaded here (pdf file 745 kB).

A radio programme by public media channel WGBH, is available here.

And a video:

Buyer Beware: Empty Air
(Click on the image and scroll down CSMonitor’s website – the video is in the left side bar.)

Stuck and his colleagues found that “individuals and businesses who are feeding a $700 million global market in offsets are often buying vague promises instead of the reductions in greenhouse gases they expect.”

They are buying into projects that are never completed, or paying for ones that would have been done anyhow, the investigation found. Their purchases are feeding middlemen and promoters seeking profits from green schemes that range from selling protection for existing trees to the promise of planting new ones that never thrive. In some cases, the offsets have consequences that their purchasers never foresaw, such as erecting windmills that force poor people off their farms.

Carbon offsets are the environmental equivalent of financial derivatives: complex, unregulated, unchecked and – in many cases – not worth their price.

And often, those who get the “green credits” thinking their own carbon emissions have been offset, are fooled.

 

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