The Carbon Offset Scam: Can I Join?

Free markets may not be perfect, but they demonstrate enormous flexibility and creativity. Display a demand, and a market will develop. So it is with so-called carbon offsets, but which people can buy absolution for engaging in activities which generate carbon dioxide emissions.

Of course, the cynical among us suspect that most people are just tossing money away in order to salve their guilty consciences. In the comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon, for instance, one of the lagoon’s underwater residents sells carbon offset certificates to anyone feeling slightly guilt-stricken about almost anything.

Unfortunately, reality appears to track entertainment. Reports the Washington Post:

With a click, a credit card and $99, visitors can pay a Silver Spring nonprofit group,, to “offset” a year’s worth of greenhouse-gas emissions. Whatever the customer put into the atmosphere — by flying, driving, using electricity — the site promises to cancel out, by funding projects that reduce pollutants.

Sites such as this one, offering absolution from the modern nag of climate guilt, have created a $55 million industry that once would have been beyond the greenest of imaginations. The market for “voluntary carbon offsets” now encompasses dozens of sellers and thousands of buyers, including individuals and corporations.

But in some cases, these customers may be buying good feelings and little else.

A closer look reveals an unregulated market in which some improvements bought by customers are only estimated, extrapolated, hoped-for or nil. Some offsets support projects that would have gone forward anyway. Others deliver results difficult to measure., for example, has advertised offsets that finance wind farms and tree-planting projects. But some wind farms said the donations haven’t led to anything new. And the benefits from some tree projects were unclear enough that no longer uses them to back offsets

What a great system. I think I will open a carbon offset business. Pay me, oh, $100 and I will plant a sprig that will eventually become a tree, absorbing the carbon dioxide that you’re causing by getting on an airplane or buying a computer or, especially, driving to work. And I am offering a special deal, today only! A dozen trees for just $1000. How can you beat that? Just send your checks to me, in care of CEI. It is a classic win-win situation: You can feel good about yourself while I can go look for another antique chess set or rare history book.

How about it?