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Carbon offsets: Australia leads the pursuit of 'greenwashing'

Consumer authorities say "greenwashing" scams in the carbon offset market – such as the Papua New Guinea tribe leader who says he was kidnapped over carbon rights to tribal lands – are proliferating.

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GreenSwitch: The name was instantly appealing, and Australians handed over tens of thousands of dollars to offset their emissions with "green power" certificates from the company.

But GreenSwitch executives, says the Australian government, didn't bother to purchase all the renewable energy for the certificates they sold. When the government told them to stop, they kept at it for two more months.

In January, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) ordered GreenSwitch's parent company, Global Green Plan, to buy 4,000 certificates at a cost of about US$128,000. Then the agency took offsetter Prime Carbon to court over false claims it was affiliated with the National Stock Exchange and approved by the Australian government.

The two cases were the result of a crackdown on "greenwash" marketing in the voluntary carbon offset industry, a consumer protection effort that puts Australia far ahead of other countries.

"It's a new market, so it's in its formative stage, and consumers don't know much about it," says Graeme Samuel, the ACCC chairman. "But they're emotionally tugged towards buying products with sustainable attributes. All this means that the market is potentially open to abuse."

His agency has taken Saab Australia to court over suggesting that the planting of 17 native trees would offset the lifetime emissions of a new car. It has also warned consumers to "hang up" if they get calls from a Japan-based offset promoter.


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