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Cashing in on carbon guilt

Services are sprouting up to lower a person's carbon "footprint," as businesses appeal to consumers concerned about climate change.

Pollution penance isn't just for heavy industry anymore.

This year, several Web-delivered services emerged that are designed to reduce an individual's environmental impact on the planet.

Called carbon offsets, these programs are meant to appeal to people concerned about climate change that stems from greenhouse gas emissions.

Service providers invest consumers' money in environmental projects, such as renewable energy research or forest conservation, with the goal of counterbalancing the carbon dioxide generated by a subscriber's energy consumption. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Although the idea of voluntarily spending money to help preserve the environment may seem beyond reproach, a recent study has called on consumers to be more discerning about their choices.

The report (click here for PDF), which rated the effectiveness of these services and called for industry standards around carbon offsets, was published earlier this month by the nonprofit organization Clean Air-Cool Planet.

"It is a business opportunity. And just like any other, there will be good businesses and not-so-good businesses," said Bill Burtis, the communications manager at Clean Air-Cool Planet, which advises businesses and communities on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "Some folks will step up and offer high-quality products, and there will be some people who can't."

The group called on consumers to push providers--there are roughly 40 organizations that offer these services--to be more "transparent" and offer more detailed information on the carbon offset mechanisms they use.

The study, which was prepared by Trexler Climate + Energy Services, ruffled some feathers among environmentalists and carbon offset marketers. These critics took issue with the report's objectivity and its method of gathering data and accounting for offsets.

If nothing else, the study appears to have prompted many insiders to scrutinize this nascent marketplace.

"There are no standards for offsets and more than a little disagreement on what constitutes a 'quality' offset. As the stakes grow, with more companies entering the offsets arena, it's time to ask some basic questions," wrote Joel Makower, a consultant on corporate environmental practices and clean technology.

Putting a price tag on carbon
Investment in technologies to help businesses, such as power utilities, reduce energy consumption and waste is booming.

Big-name venture capitalists, such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which made billions in IT and biotech, have turned their attention to clean tech, a field that covers things such as energy efficiency, renewable energy and biofuels.

That entrepreneurial flair has spilled over into the consumer arena as well.

One carbon offset company, TerraPass, was formed in 2004 out of a class at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and later was funded with $250,000.

TerraPass offers "products" to neutralize the negative environmental impact a person creates from driving cars, from air travel and from energy consumption at home. Prices for the driving credit range from $30 to $80 per year. The most popular service is a $50 purchase, which offsets the greenhouse gases most drivers generate, according to TerraPass' Chief Environmental Officer Tom Arnold.

Arnold is convinced there will be rapid growth in carbon offsets, because many people want to address global climate change but are unsure where to start.

"The whole idea and innovation behind TerraPass is to make this emotionally relevant to people," Arnold said. "Americans like their cars and the freedom they give them, but they don't like what it does to the environment. This gives them a first-order response."

"We're at 1973 levels of recycling. If we build it to be mainstreamable...we'll have the same impact that recycling did on the waste stream."
--Tom Arnold,

Later, people may consider switching vehicles, using fuels that have fewer emissions or using cars less altogether, he said. TerraPass currently has 25,000 registered customers and says half-a-million people have visited its Web site.

The money that TerraPass collects is funneled into various projects. One-third is invested in wind power projects, one-third goes to projects that convert cow manure to methane (another greenhouse gas), and one-third goes to capturing methane at smaller landfills, Arnold said.

Mandatory regulations?
Arnold said that TerraPass has been "begging" for two years to establish standards for retail carbon offsets. The company worked with the Center for Resource Solutions (CRS) to audit TerraPass' carbon credit activities (It passed).

CRS already provides certification services to ensure that funds from companies that purchase carbon offsets are spent on renewable energy projects and related credits.

In the near future, CRS intends to extend this service to retail customers and propose a standard, called Green-e Retail Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Product Certification Standard.

Meanwhile, the International Emissions Trading Association and the nonprofit Climate Group have proposed what it calls a Voluntary Carbon Standard (click here for PDF).

The Clean Air-Cool Planet study, which was commissioned by corporate customers of the nonprofit, said the growth of retail carbon-offset programs can help create awareness of global warming and, in turn, influence public policy.

However, one question that is not totally clear is how mandatory government regulations designed to restrict corporations' greenhouse gas emissions will affect these voluntary markets.

These regimes, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the northeastern U.S., are expected to rely on a cap-and-trade system where polluters can trade carbon credits if they stay below their allotted emissions targets.

TerraPass' Arnold said regulators are working on establishing rules for these new markets as well, such as how renewable energy projects are accounted for in emissions reductions.

He likens consumers' purchase of carbon credits to recycling, which has taken decades to become commonplace. The average community recycles 35 percent of waste in the U.S., with some areas, including San Francisco, up near 70 percent, he said.

"We're at 1973 levels of recycling," Arnold said. "If we build it to be mainstreamable and supported in everyday life, we'll have the same impact that recycling did on the waste stream."