Carbon Offset Scams

I have written before about carbon offset scams -- even well intentioned programs are unlikely to achieve their promised benefits because

  • The projects they fund are typically not incremental -- many likely would have proceeded without the offset funds, so that the benefits are effectively double counted.
  • I have never seen any of these programs submit themselves to 3rd party offset of their supposed CO2 reductions.  In most cases, these are faith-based programs where it is impolite to ask if the promised reductions actually occur.

Randal O'Toole has a good example of a program that makes all these mistakes, and compounds them with absurdly high administrative costs.  One is left to wonder whether the Oregon state-run program is actually reducing CO2 or simply making sure a number of government salaries get paid.

In 2006, Climate Trust spent about two-thirds of its funds on carbon offsets, while most of the rest went for payroll and professional fees. In 2007, the share going to carbon offsets declined to 64 percent. By 2008, as near as I can tell, none of Climate Trust's money went for carbon offsets. Instead, 73 percent of its $1.65 million budget went for salaries, fees, and other compensation. It also spent more than $120,000 on travel and conferences and $95,000 on rent and office expenses. In 2008, Climate Trust paid its executive director $154,000, not counting health insurance and other fringe benefits. At least one other staff member whose title was "director of offset programs" was paid more than $100,000 and a third one received $88,000.


  1. NF:

    I expect you mean 'third party audit' rather than 'third party offset'?

    If so, your point is valid.

  2. James:

    So buy credits that are certified to a standard (CDM, Gold Standard which is WWF endorsed, or VCS) and are verified by an auditor each year (TUV Nord, TUV Sud, Bureau Veritas to a name a few - global assurance companies that assure everything and know what they are doing).

    The other term you are looking for is additionality. It is a requirement of all these standards that a project shows without the carbon finance that the project could not have gone ahead. If this really concerns you then look for a project where all the monies come carbon finance.

    I suspect though that given the tone of your comment that you do not believe in carbon credits for whatever reason. However, I am afraid that the comment is largely uninformed (I cannot comment on the Climate Trust details - I assume that they cannot sell carbon credits and not buy and retire a requisite amount). Why don't you write to them and ask..

    Look finding good quality carbon credits is not difficult - you just have to know what to look for. I would not buy anything originated in the US and certainly not any apart from those certified to the standards above.

    Not all credits are equal - however, then nor are apples, eggs, ham, bread, cars, computers or pretty much everything.

  3. Mike Rigby:

    Exactly right James. There are plenty of good quality offset projects/credits out there and finding those that are subjected to external verification is a good start although even then I have found plenty of examples of non-additional projects. The key is to ask the seller what proportion of the total project capital is derived from the sale of carbon credits. Many sellers will not tell you, often because they do not know. If they can't tell you, don't buy them. If they do tell you and the figure is absurdly low (I've seen as low as 2%) then it's pretty obvious that the project is not being facilitated by carbon funding - it would have happened anyway. Buying credits originated in the US is bogus and merely rewards the US for its failure to engage with international treaties. For true additionality, seek only credits originated in the developing world.

  4. Jersey Jim:

    Thank goodness that all that money wasted on offsets in '06 & '07 was captured for the deserving and intended beneficiaries by 2008. It is a shame so much was spent on its purported purpose in the meantime (no matter how whimsical the purported purpose might actually be).

  5. Sam L.:

    "One has to wonder..."? Not enough Oregonians do, or they'd vote out these people. Unfortunately, the libs in the Willamette valley outnumber the people in the rest of the state.

  6. colson:

    If I were a progressive, the key thing I would point out is that the board is most likely composed of all white people who were, at one time or another, employed by greedy corporations. The Trust probably suffers from institutional racism which might cause people of color to feel disadvantaged in their role within the organization and thus raising the likelihood that they self-compensate for their actions. We would then need to ensure that we have enough sensitivity training to ensure that people serving in the organization are properly aware of racism and sexual harassment in the workplace and how these acts perpetrated by big businesses are directly related to or correlated with the general rise in CO2 output and global warming and the overall performance of the trust.

    But the problem right now is that we just don't have enough money to solve all of these problems so we should ignore the current failures until we have some relative successes in which to compare. I mean, what do all these right-wing nut-jobs expect? We just don't have the right people in place. You have to give the thing some time people! Besides, the number of off-sets purchased by the trust is far more than off-sets purchased by big business when you look at it from a comparative proportion of the budget perspective. I mean, how could you be so cruel when you have a CEO of a major corporation making a bajillion dollars per year plus benefits. I think the people working for the Trust deserve fair pay for their efforts.
    Ok. Did I get all of the Progressive arguments in there in a single shot? My mind is exhausted from the effort to uncritically think while writing that.