Some consumers are becoming wary. The US House of Representatives dropped plans to make its Capitol offices “carbon neutral” last year after spending $89,000 on offsets. Nike shoes abandoned them this year as untrustworthy. Responsibletravel.com, a British travel agency that claimed to be the first to offer carbon offsets in 2002 as a centerpiece of its business, has quit relying on them to help the environment. Instead, the company urges its clients to fly less.
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2008 found “limited assurance of credibility” in voluntary offsets. A parliamentary inquiry in Britain in 2007 found a long list of flaws with offsets and concluded that they have “no overarching, enforceable standards.”
Australia takes the most vigorous stand: Regulators pounced on one company for selling offsets for renewable energy it did not have, they charged another with false practices; and they are investigating allegations that natives in neighboring Papua New Guinea were deceived into surrendering carbon rights for what the natives call “sky money.”
“This is a sector that’s starting to rear a couple of ugly heads,” says Graeme Samuel, head of the Australia’s consumer protection agency.
Many voluntary carbon offsets are sold online through retailers with eco-friendly names. Others are sold as add-ons: Travel companies allow customers to “fly green,” UPS customers can offset the cost of shipping packages, Ford car buyers can drive “carbon neutral” for $29.95 per year, and the Harvard Law School urges students to buy offsets when they travel for job interviews.