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.
Greenpeace and other environmental organizations have been reluctant to completely reject carbon offsets, which are supposed to help achieve goals they support: drawing down greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere, protecting forests, promoting alternative energy, and encouraging individual action on the global climate problem.
Groups such as The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club argue that some offset projects are run by well-intentioned developers and succeed in their claims. And offset retailers say they do good work.