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Carbon offsets: How a Vatican forest failed to reduce global warming

From a scheme to create an algae bloom in the South Pacific to a Vatican forest in the plains of Hungary – how one carbon offset developer's ideas failed to reduce global warming.

Cardinal Paul Poupard accepts a KlimaFa carbon offset certificate from Russ George in July 2007. The promise to plant a "Vatican forest" as a carbon offset for the Vatican's CO2 emissions, and thereby reduce global warming, was not fulfilled by KlimaFa.

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Russ George described himself as a man of vision. He certainly envisioned making money.

The San Francisco promoter saw the profit of promising to remove carbon dioxide from the air, and selling that promise as carbon offsets to polluters, a plan he touted in interviews, press releases, and even to a congressional committee.

He just needed seed money. Nelson Skalbania, a high-profile Canadian real estate trader who had spent a year wearing a court-supervised electronic bracelet for a conviction in Canada of misappropriating $100,000 in investor funds, was just the kind of “green angel” – as Mr. George called him – who would put up the money.

With Mr. Skalbania’s backing, George bought the 152-foot research vessel Weatherbird II, repainted it with his new company name – Planktos – and hired a crew to sail for the Galapagos Islands in summer 2007.

His plan was to enlist one of nature’s carbon sponges, algae. He’d scatter a fertilizer of iron dust on 2.4 million acres of the South Pacific, he announced. In three weeks, it would produce a massive bloom of phytoplankton algae, which would inhale carbon dioxide, then sink with the carbon. George would sell his estimate of the absorbed carbon as “carbon offsets” at $5 a ton and make millions.

The Weatherbird II was under sail preparing to scatter 50 to 100 tons of iron dust when an outcry stopped it. Scientists said there was no way to tell what the iron or algae would do to the ocean environment. Diplomats cited treaties against dumping at sea. The captain of a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship threatened to ram the vessel. The Weatherbird II diverted to the Atlantic.

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