Features
Jill Cody points to her TerraPass sticker in San Jose, Calif.

Pass the buck

Environment | Carbon offsets allow environmentalists to preach green but pay someone else to live it

Issue: "The yoot vote," Aug. 4, 2007

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio and politician Al Gore took center stage at Hollywood's Kodak Theater earlier this year to announce that the 79th annual Academy Awards had officially "gone green."

More accurately, the show paid others to go green, so it wouldn't have to.

Between the telecast, the Governor's Ball, and the red carpet event, the Oscars released some 250,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to the energy emissions required to power 16 average U.S. homes for an entire year.

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But thanks to the purchase of 250,000 pounds worth of carbon offsets from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the socially conscious stars in attendance could enjoy the extravagant production guilt free. To further ease the consciences of event participants, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences purchased 100,000 pounds of carbon credits for each performer and presenter, an amount estimated to offset the annual emissions of an average celebrity lifestyle.

Such checkbook environmentalism has become all the rage among Hollywood elites and green-sensitive politicians. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John Edwards both claim to be running entirely carbon-neutral campaigns through the use of offsets. And Gore has invoked offsets to defend the $1,200 electricity bill he pays each month to power his 10,000-square-foot home in Tennessee.

Celebrities and liberal politicians are far from alone in tapping this rapidly expanding carbon market. News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch announced this spring that all of his businesses, including Fox News, would use offsets to become carbon neutral by 2010. Numerous other businesses eager for a green stamp of approval without the economic pain of cutting their energy use are buying up offsets by the millions. Many guilt-ridden SUV drivers have likewise found an avenue to absolve their shame without sacrificing their toys.

The market operates on a simple principle: CO2 emitters pay for environmental projects to sop up or eliminate an equal amount of greenhouse gases. But the real-world outworking of that concept proves far more complicated. Forestation, carbon capture, methane burns: The offset projects are as diverse as the companies and nonprofits that undertake them-and nearly impossible to regulate or standardize.

How do carbon-capture projects work? By trapping CO2 emissions from large sources such as power plants and storing the greenhouse gas underground.

Methane burns place flares at the mouths of abandoned coal mines, scorching the methane gas as it escapes to significantly reduce environmental impacts.

These projects produce verifiable emissions reductions, but measuring their success with enough accuracy to set a market price is sticky business.

Mark Trexler, managing director of consulting for the global carbon-trading giant EcoSecurities, says that in past years offset projects got a near universal free pass from consumers, media, and environmental watchdog groups. Only with the market's recent eruption have they faced tight scrutiny and questions of legitimacy.

"Up until nine moths ago, you could not point to a single case in the press of somebody called on the carpet for doing bad green. Everybody working in this space was an environmental hero no matter what they were doing," Trexler told WORLD. "Nine months later, the whole framework of press coverage and how you're being looked at has shifted 180 degrees. Now, it's almost assumed that you're doing something nefarious."

Such suspicion is not without merit. The 100,000 pounds worth of carbon credits given to participating celebrities at the Oscars came from retail merchant TerraPass, which, according to a BusinessWeek investigation, sells high quantities of offsets from environmental projects that would have happened anyway. In other words, the money spent to offset celebrity emissions may have had zero environmental impact.

Similar stories of other meaningless offsets have surfaced throughout the United States and Europe. Many organizations and companies already engaged in emissions-reduction activity have realized the potential economic benefit of their initially voluntary practices and cashed in.

A New York Times report uncovered a devious practice among some Midwest farmers, who recently began selling carbon offsets from no-till planting, despite having practiced that less labor-intensive method of cultivation for more than a decade. An investigation from the UK-based Financial Times found that the U.S. carbon-credit company Blue Source sells offsets by capturing CO2 and pumping it into depleted oil wells, despite the independent profits that project yields from recovering once abandoned oil.

Such practices are not illegal, but they severely undermine the credibility of a U.S. market that remains almost entirely unregulated. In Europe, due to the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol's requirements for significant emissions reductions, some regulation measures have taken effect to ensure what is termed "additionality"-namely, the extent to which carbon-reducing projects would not happen without carbon-offset funding.

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