Heidi Guenin felt guilty about the carbon dioxide emissions she and her husband were going to generate on their honeymoon flight to Mexico. So she looked into carbon offsets—a way of zeroing out an individual’s share of carbon dioxide emissions by contributing to reforestation or renewable energy projects. In turn, these projects either increase carbon dioxide absorption or reduce emissions.

But Guenin immediately had concerns.

“I’m not going to see these trees or visit these projects. How can I know the money will make it there?” she says.

In August, Guenin was relieved to learn that TerraPass, one of several companies selling carbon offsets, had its portfolio reviewed by the Center for Resource Solutions, a third party auditor. After reading their detailed report online, she felt more comfortable and purchased a $9.95 offset to compensate for emissions from two roundtrip flights.

There are currently dozens of carbon offset marketers like TerraPass, boasting a variety of independent party verification for their products and practices. While these certifications can increase consumer confidence, they also pose a problem—there are no universally accepted standards from government or industry to regulate them.

At minimum most marketers claim that their products, such as energy credits from a wind farm project or newly planted trees, are certified.

The Center for Resource Solutions offers a popular certification label, Green-e—TerraPass, Carbonfund.org, Native Energy, and Bonneville Environmental Foundation are among the many marketers that sell Green-e certified products. The Green-e logo means that the electricity from a renewable energy project meets the standards set up by Center for Resource Solutions—specifically that the project is real, that it would not take place without additional funding from carbon offsets, and that credits from the projects are only sold once.

“With our label we want to provide a guarantee. Something that people can trust,” says Lars Kvale, an analyst at the Center for Resource Solutions. And the Center is weeks away from releasing a new standard that will certify greenhouse gas reduction projects.

Other product certifiers include the Environmental Resource Trust and the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance. The Chicago Climate Exchange is often cited, too; the Exchange itself isn’t an auditor, but it works with a third party auditor to track its emissions reduction credits.

Less common are the marketers like TerraPass that use third parties to show that consumer’s money is actually going to these renewable energy projects. These auditors can ensure that a marketer’s purchases and sales match up, so that a specified number of trees are planted or a certain number of energy credits are sold and taken off the market.

Carbonfund.org is also taking this extra step; in January the Environmental Resources Trust will verify that consumers are getting what they pay for. “It makes what we do even more transparent,” says Eric Carlson, executive director of Carbonfund.org.

Many hope that the industry will one day create its own common standards.

But until the industry adopts a universal set of standards, it is up to the concerned consumer to choose among different certification procedures. With universal standards still far off, however, individuals may just have to trust that companies are on the right track.

“I still don’t know much about these certification companies as I would like,” says Guenin. “But I have yet to hear anything negative.”

Story by Amy Schoenfeld. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006.

Copyright Environ Press 2006

Purchasing peace of mind
Do carbon offsets companies deliver what they promise?