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Guilt relief in global warming

Carbon offsets, or paying others to fight climate change, are still in doubt. Who checks up on these programs?

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A new trend is to become a zero-sum contributor of greenhouse gases ("carbon neutral"). Some people avoid the lifestyle change, however, and instead purchase "offsets." But do such buy-offs really make a difference? Yes and no.

The idea behind carbon offsets is simple: Make a contribution to any project that reduces greenhouse gases, such as a tree-planting scheme or a business that captures methane from landfills, and thus compensate for one's personal additions to global warming.

Spend enough money and your conscience seems clear as regards being responsible for climate change.

The World Bank estimates that the global market in voluntary offsets, by both businesses and individuals, grew to about $100 million in 2006, and will rise again this year. Last month, for instance, the US Forest Service announced a Carbon Capture Fund that will sell offsets to individuals. Since trees absorb CO2, the fund will underwrite tree-planting in Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota. Buyers will first use a "carbon calculator" to measure how much their activities at home, on transportation, at leisure, or on the job produce greenhouse gases, and then pay a certain amount to have seedlings planted in treeless areas. A small family, for instance, might pay under $200 per year, depending on its lifestyle.

Another attempt to sell offsets is General Electric's "Earth Rewards" credit card. Up to 1 percent of each purchase with the card is used to fund programs that claim to reduce greenhouse gases.

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