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Buying carbon offsets may ease eco-guilt but not global warming

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Tens of thousands of buyers purchase carbon offsets yearly to help neutralize their global-warming pollution. They pay $5, $10, $20 or more from green-swathed sites on the Internet, or pay extra for offsets when they purchase airline tickets, rent a car, or ship a package. Companies buy them in bulk to help project a “green” image. Government agencies and civic organizations get offsets believing the purchases will make their actions “carbon neutral.”

They have created a worldwide market estimated by analyst Ecosystem Marketplace at $705 million in 2008. In the United States alone, offset sales have tripled in five years.

But these offsets – some sold through respected environmental organizations – come with almost no rules: There is little regulatory oversight of them in the US, no enforcement of requirements to prove their environmental claims, no certain way of measuring the carbon savings being sold, and no guarantees that planted trees or other projects will be finished or continued long enough to work.

The result, critics say, is a “Wild West” market ripe for fraud, exaggeration, and poorly run projects.

The investigation by NECIR and the Monitor found examples of irregularities in the market that include:

•An offset project in India that cleared plots of traditional tribal farmlands to build windmills for green electric power, upending some farmers’ livelihoods and – in the end – generating significantly less power than expected.

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