MELISSA BLOCK, host:
On Sunday night, when the movie "An Inconvenient Truth" won an Oscar, its star, Al Gore, took the stage with this message about global warming.
(Soundbite of 79th Annual Academy Awards broadcast)
Mr. AL GORE (Former Vice President): People all over the world, we need to solve the climate crisis. It's not a political issue. It's a moral issue. We have everything we need to get started with the possible exception of the will to act. That's a renewable resource; let's renew it.
(Soundbite of applause)
BLOCK: Not so fast, said a libertarian think-tank called the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. The group called up the National Electric Service and asked about the bills for the Gore's 10,000-square-foot home.
Mr. DREW JOHNSON (President, Tennessee Center for Policy Research): The average American uses about 11,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. But Al Gore devoured 221,000 kilowatt hours.
BLOCK: That's Drew Johnson, president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research.
Mr. JOHNSON: It sort of raised the question: Is he doing the sorts of things that he's asking us to do?
BLOCK: In the last couple of days, the center's research has gotten a lot of attention. And in response, Al Gore's office said the Gore family does a lot to reduce its carbon imprint, such as making renovations that include solar panels and purchasing carbon offsets.
But how do carbon offsets work? We asked Mark Trexler. He's president of Trexler Climate and Energy Services at the climate change consulting firm. He says first, you calculate how much carbon dioxide you're putting into the air, and then you figure out how much to pay a carbon offset company to counteract the pollution.
Mr. MARK TREXLER (President, Trexler Climate and Energy Services): We're talking about doing something somewhere in the world that actually reduces the emission of carbon from what would otherwise have been the case.
BLOCK: And how do you do that?
Mr. TREXLER: Well, you could - many people think of it as planting a tree, but you can go and you can buy reductions from a solar energy project in India, or from a coal mine methane project in China, or from a project that distributes compact fluorescents in Mexico. Your money is going to help make those projects happen, and in return you're getting these carbon offsets.
BLOCK: I understand there are actually companies that you can pay to sort of handle your offset, your imprint. How does that work?
Mr. TREXLER: Well, at the retail level - we did a report just a couple of months ago that looked at 30 retail offset providers here in the U.S. and internationally, and those are places that you can go on the Web and you give them your credit card and they sell you offsets. And you can then claim to be climate neutral. And because it's pretty hard for consumers to figure out what they're buying in many cases, we were asked to this review to provide consumers with more information about what they were buying.
BLOCK: And what did you find out? Are these reputable companies doing this work?
Mr. TREXLER: I think it's safe to say that most of the companies are trying to do the right thing. It's not always easy, and so you really do find big differences among companies in terms of how likely it is that you're buying a real offset.
BLOCK: There are naysayers. What's the main criticism of carbon offsets?
Mr. TREXLER: The criticisms range from sort of philosophical to practical in the sense that, you know, we shouldn't be offsetting anything. We should simply be reducing our emissions. Which would be nice but it's not particularly practical in many cases. The key objection, I think, is that a lot of people don't believe that many of the offsets being sold are truly offsets. For an offset to be real, you have to be causing something to happen with your money that wouldn't have happened otherwise.
BLOCK: Yeah. If I'm a, you know, an average person wanting to offset my carbon imprint, how would I know that my offset is working?
Mr. TREXLER: Well, I think that's a matter at this point of going to some of the more reliable providers, because it is very hard for an individual to go and find out exactly where their money is going and is that a quality offset project. Within - hopefully, it won't be long before we have, you know, pretty clear standards that people can follow. I mean, suddenly in the last 12 months the amount of interest in this has exploded and all the processes and procedures for quality control are still effectively catching up.
BLOCK: And you think that's coming though.
Mr. TREXLER: Yes, I do. It has to come if we're going maintain the credibility of this market.
BLOCK: Mark Trexler, thanks very much.
Mr. TREXLER: My pleasure.
BLOCK: Mark Trexler is president of Trexler Climate and Energy Services, a climate change consulting firm in Portland, Oregon.