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Do carbon offsets live up to their promise?

Consumers purchase them to relieve greenhouse-gas guilt, but there's no easy way to keep offset companies accountable.

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In 2006, "carbon neutral" became the New Oxford American Dictionary's word of the year, evidence not only of the "greening" of our culture, but of our language as well. As scientists predict another bout of record-setting temperatures this year, climate concerns may soon "green" our wallets as well. By all accounts, 2007 is poised to see the industry of carbon neutrality – so-called carbon offsetting – grow dramatically.

In theory, the idea is simple. The consumer pays a third party to remove a quantity of carbon (in the form of a greenhouse gas) equal to what he or she emits. But how voluntary carbon offsets actually work is unclear at best, and potentially fraudulent at worst, say experts.

The problem: No current certification or monitoring system has any teeth, and there is no easy way to confirm that offsetting companies are doing what they promise. Now, various organizations are scrambling to provide standards for what experts call a fragmented market with a product of drastically varying quality.

The first-ever ranking of carbon offsetters recently released by Clean Air-Cool Planet, a nonprofit in Portsmouth, N.H., graded 30 companies on a scale of 1 to 10; tellingly, three-quarters scored below 5. Critics, meanwhile, question whether the carbon market might be a dangerous distraction at a time when decisive action is needed to avert climate catastrophe.

"On the one hand, there is the potential benefit of educating people through offsets," says Dan Becker, director of Sierra Club's global warming program. "On the other hand, if people view offsets like papal indulgences that allow you to continue to pollute, then it's probably not a good idea."

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