'Carbon Offset' Business Takes Root

The promise of the growing "carbon-offset" business is a carbon-neutral imprint for individuals through investment in green technologies, or even trees. But does buying a carbon offset for your gas-guzzler really make it carbon neutral?

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Feeling guilty about all those greenhouse gases you generate? Sure, you try to be good, but even a die-hard environmentalist has to heat the house and fly home for the holidays.

But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle, there may be a way to get out of that eco guilt - if you're willing to pay.

MARTIN KASTE: Robin Rothwell(ph) is an eco-conscious realtor who worries so much about global warming he drives a three-wheeled electric car when he shows his clients houses.

He and his family produce greenhouse gases in other ways, of course, but he's trying to make up for that, too.

Mr. ROBIN ROTHWELL (Realtor): The average home emits about 18 tons of greenhouse gases a year. That tonnage can be offset by a good, reliable company - the one we use - for about $10 a ton.

KASTE: Rothwell is talking about carbon offsets. He sends money to the Climate Trust, a company in Oregon that puts his cash to work in green projects around the world - forest restoration in Ecuador, for example, or wind farms in Washington state.

The company pledges to balance out Rothwell's greenhouse gases by cutting the same amount of greenhouse gases somewhere else. Corporations have been buying carbon offsets for years, but now the idea is catching on at a retail level. Dozens of new Web sites have popped up, inviting people to buy a measure of atmospheric penance.

You can even make your new SUV carbon-neutral, just go to the Ford Web site and pony up 80 bucks per year.

(Soundbite of busy street)

Overlooking a busy street in Seattle, a mock thermometer tracks this neighborhood's progress toward becoming carbon-neutral. The sign is the work of Tracy Caroll(ph), a self-described social entrepreneur who recently got into the business of selling carbon offsets directly to individuals and small businesses.

He's already sold hundreds of offsets here, but given the intense traffic rolling by, I told him it didn't look like the neighborhood's carbon emissions were going down at all.

Mr. TRACY CARROLL (Social Entrepreneur): Gross emissions haven't, but the net emissions have. So - though individuals are still putting out the same amount, they have reduced that somewhere else. They have prevented emissions from happening somewhere else.

KASTE: Perhaps in the future.

Mr. CARROLL: No, no, right now.

KASTE: Timing is a contentious point in this business - that is, are my greenhouse gases being balanced out right now while I'm producing them, or often some hazy future?

For example, Caroll has been telling his customers that their emissions are being canceled out right now, by truckers who no longer have to idle their engines to keep their cabs warm at night - this is because of a truck stop electrification project funded by the carbon offset company that he represents.

But I had to break it to him that those truck stop plug-in stations that he talks about have not yet been built.

At this moment, at least, there's not a single trucker plugging in to one of these things.

Mr. CAROLL: Okay, that's news to me. But essentially what is happening is the money is going to secure these offsets that are happening, both now and the future.

Mr. GEORGE MONBIOT (Environmental Campaigner, Britain): It's clearly quite absurd.

KASTE: George Monbiot is an environmental campaigner in Britain, and he writes columns on this very subject for the Guardian. Carbon offsets are widely used in Europe, but he says they just give people there an easy way to put off changing the way they live.

Mr. MONBIOT: It's a bit like the sale of indulgences prior to the Reformation -that as long as you hand over your money, your sins are deemed to have been canceled out and you are no longer unclean in the eyes of God. And unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. We have to see massive carbon cutbacks, at home as well as abroad.

KASTE: Proponents of carbon offsets admit that they're not making a dent in the big numbers. Individuals would have to buy $10 billion worth every year just to get the U.S. back to its 1990 greenhouse gas levels.

But those who buy the offsets say there is an intangible benefit in paying for your greenhouse gases. Instead of giving you license to pollute more, they say, it actually reminds you to cut back.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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