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Trying to buy a greener conscience

Now anyone can pay to offset carbon from jobs, travel, life. Does it work?

September 02, 2007|Times Staff Writer | By Alan Zarembo

The Oscar-winning film "An Inconvenient Truth" touted itself as the world's first carbon-neutral documentary.

The producers said that every ounce of carbon emitted during production -- from jet travel, electricity for filming and gasoline for cars and trucks -- was counterbalanced by reducing emissions somewhere else in the world. It only made sense that a film about the perils of global warming wouldn't contribute to the problem.

Co-producer Lesley Chilcott used an online calculator to estimate that shooting the film used 41.4 tons of carbon dioxide and paid a middleman, a company called Native Energy, $12 a ton, or $496.80, to broker a deal to cut greenhouse gases elsewhere. The film's distributors later made a similar payment to neutralize carbon dioxide from the marketing of the movie.

It was a ridiculously good deal with one problem: So far, it has not led to any additional emissions reductions.

Beneath the feel-good simplicity of buying your way to carbon neutrality is a growing concern that the idea is more hype than solution.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 26, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 127 words Type of Material: Correction
Purchasing offsets: A Sept. 2 article in Section A that assessed how businesses and individuals try to become "carbon-neutral" said that one broker, or offset company, Native Energy, did not contact the developer of a methane collector project until after it was mostly funded. Native Energy contacted dairy farmer Dave Van Gilder while he was seeking funding from Pennsylvania for his electricity-generating system. The article also said that the farmer had begun construction when Native Energy signed an agreement to buy future greenhouse gas reductions, which were later sold to the producers of "An Inconvenient Truth" and other customers. In fact, Native Energy and Van Gilder also had signed an earlier agreement, after the state grant had been awarded but more than a year before construction began.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 30, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 127 words Type of Material: Correction
Purchasing offsets: A Sept. 2 article in Section A that assessed how businesses and individuals try to become "carbon-neutral" said that one broker, or offset company, Native Energy, did not contact the developer of a methane collector project until after it was mostly funded. Native Energy contacted dairy farmer Dave Van Gilder while he was seeking funding from Pennsylvania for his electricity-generating system. The article also said that the farmer had begun construction when Native Energy signed an agreement to buy future greenhouse gas reductions, which were later sold to the producers of "An Inconvenient Truth" and other customers. In fact, Native Energy and Van Gilder also had signed an earlier agreement, after the state grant had been awarded but more than a year before construction began.For the Record

According to Native Energy, money from "An Inconvenient Truth," along with payments from others trying to neutralize their emissions, went to the developers of a methane collector on a Pennsylvanian farm and three wind turbines in an Alaskan village.

As it turned out, both projects had already been designed and financed, and the contributions from Native Energy covered only a minor fraction of their costs. "If you really believe you're carbon neutral, you're kidding yourself," said Gregg Marland, a fossil-fuel pollution expert at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee who has been watching the evolution of the new carbon markets. "You can't get out of it that easily."

The race to save the planet from global warming has spawned a budding industry of middlemen selling environmental salvation at bargain prices.

The companies take millions of dollars collected from their customers and funnel them into carbon-cutting projects, such as tree farms in Ecuador, windmills in Minnesota and no-till fields in Iowa.

In return, customers get to claim the reductions, known as voluntary carbon offsets, as their own. For less than $100 a year, even a Hummer can be pollution-free -- at least on paper.

Driven by guilt, public relations or genuine concern over global warming, tens of thousands of people have purchased offsets to zero out their carbon impact on the planet.

"It made me feel better about driving my car," said Nicky Tenpas, a 29-year-old occupational therapist from Hermosa Beach, who bought offsets to neutralize emissions from the Jeep she always wanted.

The star of "An Inconvenient Truth," former Vice President Al Gore, says he and his family are carbon neutral, as are Dave Matthews Band concerts and Coldplay albums. The travel websites Expedia and Travelocity now offer passengers the option of counteracting their flights, and Rupert Murdoch promises that his entire News Corp. will be carbon neutral by 2010, largely through the purchase of offsets.

Offset companies stress that they are not a cure-all for the world's greenhouse gas emissions, which are equivalent to 54 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year.

Tom Boucher, chief executive of Native Energy, said people should first reduce their energy consumption and waste, and then buy offsets -- "the only way to really get to zero unless you stop driving, stop traveling."

But the industry is clouded by an approach to carbon accounting that makes it easy to claim reductions that didn't occur. Many projects that have received money from offset companies would have reduced emissions by the same amount anyway.

The growing popularity of offsets has now prompted the Federal Trade Commission to begin looking into the $55-million-a-year industry.

"Everybody would like to find happy-face, win-win solutions that don't cost anything," said Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard University. "Unfortunately, they don't exist."

Selling clean air

In the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, outside the town of Berlin, Dave Van Gilder's family has been raising cows for four decades. He and his twin sons, Jason and Justin, tend to their 400 Holsteins while his wife, Connie, keeps the books.

The smell of manure has long been the sweet exhaust of a dairy farm running full tilt.

Millions of pounds of cow excrement over the decades were funneled from the barns to a 3.3-million-gallon lagoon, where it decayed, burping invisible clouds of the potent greenhouse gas methane.

In the days of Van Gilder's father, nobody cared about the greenhouse gases.

But things began to change a few years ago. Van Gilder didn't know it, but his lagoon had become an economic opportunity.

A local congressman urged him to apply for a state alternative energy grant to build a system that would capture methane from cow manure and burn it to generate electricity.

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