There's a Gold Mine In Environmental Guilt

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008

This is strange territory. The Dow is down. Wall Street needs a bailout. But in the Washington area and across the country, there is still a bull market in environmental guilt.

Sales of carbon offsets -- whose buyers pay hard cash to make amends for their sins against the climate -- are up. Still. In some cases, the prices have actually been climbing.

In other words, when nearly everything seems to be selling for less, thousands of individuals and businesses are paying more for nothing, or at least nothing tangible.

Experts say this is possible, in part, for economic reasons: The financial crisis has not yet reached those upper-middle-class consumers who are willing to pay $12 to offset a cross-country flight, $80 for a wedding or $400-plus for a year of life.

But there is also a cultural factor, the legacy of a complicated decade defined by a "green" awakening and a national splurge in consumer spending. Many people have learned to pay to lessen their climate shame -- and, at least for now, they don't think of it as a luxury purchase.

"I was feeling really guilty because I was basically traveling to three continents in the last month: 'I've spent basically six days on an airplane. I've got to fix this,' " said Michael Sheets, 27, who lives in the District's Logan Circle neighborhood.

So a few days ago, Sheets paid $240 to a Silver Spring-based vendor, Carbonfund.org, choosing its offsets because they were more than $100 cheaper than a comparable package from another offset seller. He got back an e-mail saying that the 52,920 pounds of greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to him for the entire year, including his trips to Trinidad, Thailand and Argentina, had been canceled out.

"I feel much better about it," said Sheets, human resources director for an online-education company in Northern Virginia. "I don't feel as guilty about flying to Vegas tomorrow for the weekend."

On the surface, offsets sound like a simple transaction. Generally, the buyer uses an online tool to calculate the carbon footprint -- the amount of harmful emissions -- of a car, a flight or a year's activities. Then the buyer pays an offset vendor to cancel out that footprint. This is done through projects that stop emissions from occurring or remove pollutants from the air.

Some offsets are sold like stocks on the Chicago Climate Exchange. Other groups sell them directly to consumers. One study last year found that offset prices ranged from $1.80 per ton of emissions to $300, with most about $6.10.

Watchdog groups say offset vendors sometimes do not deliver what they promise. Some offset projects, such as mass tree plantings aimed at absorbing carbon dioxide, deliver climate benefits that are difficult to measure. In other cases, it is unclear whether offsets funnel money to existing projects or to projects that might have been done anyway.

Despite those concerns -- and despite continuing turmoil in world financial markets -- offset sales are strong. And offsets are selling for more.


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