Pollution, without all that guilt

Silver Spring nonprofit sells `offsets' to carbon dioxide, but some are skeptical

August 04, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Eric Carlson sells an invisible commodity: the soothing of guilt over global warming. And these days, business is hot.

His Maryland-based nonprofit organization, Carbonfund.org, which acts as a middleman for donors who want to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution, saw its revenue jump 20-fold last year, to $850,000.

The 3-year-old group, benefiting from mounting public concern about climate change, is one of eight or more fast-growing firms across the country that sell "carbon offsets."

The industry works this way: People who feel bad about the carbon dioxide pollution created by their lifestyles - for example, flying across the country or driving to the beach - give donations to Carbonfund or other groups, which in turn passes the money on to pollution-fighting projects. In return, donors get bumper stickers proclaiming they've done their part to "fight climate change."

Carlson says he uses the money to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through the planting of trees (which absorb the heat-trapping gas as they grow), the construction of wind turbines (which generate electricity without spewing pollution) and other projects.

So, in effect, Carlson is making money from people's anxieties about the burning of fossil fuels, drawing a $95,000 salary from his fund this year, compared with $59,364 last year. But he insists he's also helping people do good.

"Look at the shirt you are wearing. Look at what you ate for breakfast this morning. Making all that produced carbon dioxide. What are you going to do about it?" asked the 37-year-old former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency energy-efficiency program manager during an interview in his spartan offices in Silver Spring. "These are direct action donations."

But the growth of this new enterprise hasn't come without criticism, both of Carbonfund's specific claims and the broader idea of paying someone else instead of cutting your own energy consumption and pollution.

One complaint is that Carbonfund tends to make small donations to multimillion-dollar alternative energy projects years after they're already built and running. This raises questions about whether Carbonfund's donations are really achieving anything to reduce carbon dioxide, as the donors intended.

For example, Carbonfund last year contributed $8,000 to an $81 million wind farm in Ainsworth, Neb., that was built in 2005; $3,200 last year to a $40 million wind farm constructed three years earlier in Highmore, S.D.; and $4,000 in 2005 to a $16 million waste-to-energy plant built three years earlier in Chino, Calif.

Chris Busch, an economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that Carbonfund should not claim it is reducing carbon dioxide pollution when it gives money to alternative energy projects that would have been built anyway, without its money.

"There's no way that can be an offset," he said about Carbonfund's contributions to these projects. "An offset is a project that wouldn't have happened otherwise without the offset funding. ... This is the problem generally with carbon offsets - there are all sorts of claims about them, and a lack of verification."

Jennifer Boettcher, program manager at the Nebraska-based National Arbor Day Foundation, said her group received $15,050 from Carbonfund to plant trees. But she said the foundation objects to these trees counting toward carbon reduction credits, which she said are controversial because of the lack of standards in the new carbon-offset industry.

"We don't allow people to claim credits or offsets from our tree plantings," said Boettcher. "There really isn't a set formula in place to figure out how much carbon is sequestered by trees."

Boettcher told The Sun in late July that Carbonfund's trees hadn't yet been planted in four national forests, although the National Arbor Day Foundation had received the money in 2005 and 2006.

After being questioned by The Sun about why his firm claimed credit for trees that weren't planted, Carlson called Kevin Sander, director of corporate partnerships at the Arbor Day Foundation, who phoned the newspaper the next day, Thursday, and said all the trees had been planted after all. He said he couldn't say when.

Carlson said his trees would help the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide as they mature. He acknowledged that his group's payments to the wind farms were made after were they built, but he said they were important nonetheless. Carlson said the subsidies help make wind generation more profitable and therefore competitive with coal-fired power plants.

Carbonfund doesn't make direct contributions to projects, but instead traffics in what is essentially a stamp of approval that allows people to claim to be good environmental citizens for buying "green power."

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