The success of Al Gore’s global warming shockumentary An Inconvenient Truth has created a very convenient truth for companies that sell “carbon offsets,” reports today’s edition of The Tennessean: Rising sales.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the company from which Gore gets his own carbon offsets spends very litle of its revenue on carbon-offsetting projects, according to a recent study by the Tufts University Climate Initiative. More on that in a minute.

And read this whole post – it isn’t just about Gore and his carbon offsets, but about the larger issue of whether carbon offsets are in and of themselves a good thing. We’ll start with part of The Tennessean’s story on how Gore’s movie is pumping up the sales of carbon offsets…

Offsets aren’t a new idea, but they’ve become more popular since release of the film. While green-conscious consumers insist every little bit helps, doubters accuse them of falling prey to scientifically unsound hype.

The paper quotes Kevin Smith, Carbon Trade Watch in London, calling carbon offsets “modern-day indulgences, sold to an increasingly carbon-conscious public to absolve their climate sins.” Smith and Carbon Trade Watch are not “global warming denialists” or in the pocket of the oil industry. They favor an accountable, effective carbon trading market, not the unproven, unaccountable and unverifiable “carbon offsets” gimmickry that the Gore movie apparently has spurred to greater sales. Smith calls offsets are “marketing gimmicks at a time when ‘collective political action’ is needed to tackle climate change.” 

Carbon Trade Watch has released a report, The Carbon Neutral Myth – Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins.

Scratch the surface, however, and a disturbing picture emerges, where creative accountancy and elaborate shell games cover up the impossibility of verifying genuine climate change benefits, and where communities in the South often have little choice as offset projects are inflicted on them. This report argues that offsets place disproportionate emphasis on individual lifestyles and carbon footprints, distracting attention from the wider, systemic changes and collective political action that needs to be taken to tackle climate change. Promoting more effective and empowering approaches involves moving away from the marketing gimmicks, celebrity endorsements, technological quick fixes, and the North/South exploitation that the carbon offsets industry embodies.

You can download the report here in an 80-page PDF file.

As for the movie’s impact on carbon offsets, The Tennessean reports that the makers of An Inconvenient Truth claim it was itself “carbon neutral” because the movie producers purchased offsets through a company called NativeEnergy. And in a nice bit of you-scratch-our-back-we’ll-scratch-yours, NativeEnergy promotes An Inconvenient Truth on its website.

The Tennessean story also contains this bit of info about Gore’s investment company, Generation Investment Management, saying that it “also is involved in offsets, but it doesn’t sell them.” A few months ago, when Gore’s personal energy usage was in the news, a Gore spokesman told the paper that Gore was “carbon neutral” because he purchases carbon offsets through Generation Investment Management.

Gore helped found Generation Investment Management, through which he and others pay for offsets. The firm invests the money in solar, wind and other projects that reduce energy consumption around the globe, she said…

That has turned out not to be true. Instead, Gore’s company buys carbon offsets from CarbonNeutral “in order to offset the carbon that results from its business and staff activities, including commuting and air travel,” The Tennessean now reports. Neither Gore nor the companies’ employees pay for their offsets – they are a part of the employee benefits package, a perk, according to this story from CNS News a few weeks ago.

Gore’s London-based employee-owned company, Generation Investment Management (GIM), purchases — but isn’t a provider of — carbon dioxide (CO2) “offsets,” said spokesman Richard Campbell. GIM is strictly an investment firm that considers how eco-friendly corporations are in assessing long-term sustainability, Campbell told Cybercast News Service by phone from London.“We do not invest in any activity of carbon offset. That’s nonsense. We are a fund management business that does sustainability research,” he added. The confusion, Campbell said, arose because GIM pays to offset the energy use of its operations and the personal emissions of its 23 employees, including Gore. So, the firm will cover the cost to offset the energy use at Gore’s home, or his global jet travel, as it would the offset cost of any other employee, Campbell said.

CarbonNeutral is a target of carbon-offsets critics – and, as I’ll explain more fully later in this report, for good reason.

CO2lonialism? New Scientist recently published a report by science journalist Fred Pearce critical of carbon offsets. Pearce wrote:

Many governments in the developing world worry about the probity of letting rich nations carrying out carbon offsetting in their countries – they call it CO2lonialism. One day soon, countries like India, China and Brazil will probably have to accept their own limits on emissions. At that point, they may discover that the easiest, cheapest offset options have already been used up by western companies.

Pearce later says this:

What does seem fair criticism is that efforts to portray offsets as simple, quick fixes pose serious questions of both commercial and ecological legitimacy. Sceptics argue there is no substitute for cutting emissions. For them, “dump, burn and offset” is the worst possible outcome. In February a radical group called London Rising Tide occupied the office of CarbonNeutral, accusing the company of creating a “smokescreen” behind which corporations will be able to keep increasing emissions. That is a political judgement rather than a scientific one – as far as the climate is concerned, a tonne of CO2 pulled out of the atmosphere is as good as a tonne of CO2 that never entered it – but the group still has a point. Buying an offset implies a degree of certainty that we do not have.

James Hrynyshyn, a freelance science journalist in western North Carolina with degrees in marine biology and journalism, who writes the science blog Island of Doubt, has more on Pearce’s report here.

According to a widely-distributed recent Associated Press article, NativeEnergy did not get high marks from researchers at the Tufts University Climate Initiative, which recently investigated several carbon-offsets marketers. The Tufts report, online here, asserts that “voluntary carbon offsets do have their place in spurring innovation and financing carbon-reducing projects that would otherwise not have happened,” but …

As is to be expected with new business opportunities, the quality and standards of voluntary offset companies vary widely – or as one of our reviewers put it: “Its the Wild West!” Some offset companies are run by very seasoned carbon trading experts who are well versed in all the issues that surround carbon trading, others are much less experienced and are either using carbon offset to further promote their environmental or humanitarian missions or see the emerging market as a financial opportunity. Neither of these objectives is inherently bad, if the offsets that are sold meet high standards, yet unfortunately that is not always the case.

CarbonNeutral – the company through with Gore’s company buys carbon offsets as an employee perk – is apparently not one of the better carbon-offsets companies. The for-profit company only invests about 23 percent of its sales revenue in carbon-offsetting projects, the Tufts researchers said – the lowest percentage of any of the carbon-offsets sellers it investigated which provided financial data. Here’s the Tufts chart:

For a company that claims to specialize in “sustainability research,” Gore’s Generation Investmentment Management picked a lousy source for its carbon offsets – on average, less than a quarter of the money GIM spends on carbon offsets from CarbonNeutral actually get spent on projects that reduce or soak up carbon emissions.

More mutual back-scratching: At the upcoming Green Marketing conference April 25-27 in London, an event chaired by CarbonNeutral Company CEO Jonathan Shopley where attendees will “explore how to successfully communicate a credible green message to stakeholders.”

Shopley will be speaking at the Green Marketing conference about the business of climate change, brand and marketing strategy, and what it means to become CarbonNeutral. And he and The CarbonNeutral Company “will host a private screening of Al Gores film An Inconvenient Truth, together with after film panel discussion on the links between brands, climate change and business growth,” according to an events listing on CarbonNeutral’s website.

What about the links between carbon offsets and actually, you know, reducing carbon emissions?

Not on the agenda. CarbonNeutral is a for-profit business in the business of selling carbon offsets based on concern over climate change. And rising concern – fueled in part by An Inconvenient Truth – translates into rising sales, and rising profits for Carbon Neutral. You don’t think the other 77 percent is all overhead, do you?

So, if CarbonNeutral isn’t all that hot, who is?

The AP report on the Tufts study says Tufts evaluated the carbon offsets sellers “on the quality of the offsets they offer, transparency, the price of a ton of carbon offsets and the accuracy of their carbon calculators,” and gave German-based Atmosfair, Australia-based Climate Friendly and Sustainable Travel International of Boulder, Colo., its highest rankings.”

The AP story also mentions the December 2006 report from Clean Air Cool Planet, which evaluated 30 offset providers and concluded “there is considerable room for improvement, even among the top providers.” Clean Air Cool Planet also gave high rankings to Atmosfair, Climate Friendly and Sustainable Travel International, and to U.S.-based NativeEnergy LLC and The Climate Trust.

The AP reports says that “some environmentalists still question whether even the best carbon offset scheme is a real solution to climate change,” and notes that while the Tufts University Climate Initiative ranked carbon offset programs, “it made a decision not to purchase offsets.”

“We are spending our effort on reducing our own direct emissions,” said Sarah Creighton, director of the Climate Initiative. “We feel that’s a prudent use of our resources. It’s taking care of our own house and not paying someone to do it for us.”

Inconvenient? Sure. But it’s a lot closer to the truth.

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