There’s No Transparency in the Carbon-Offset Market

Adam Piore today profiles

Tom Arnold of TerraPass, a for-profit company selling carbon offsets to

guilty gas-guzzling liberals. TerraPass is very secretive about its "revenue,

profits, or even how much it has invested so far in carbon-offset projects",

which means that no one using TerraPass has any clue how much of their money

goes to carbon offsets and how much goes to amortize the cost of Tom Arnold’s


I see no reason to use a for-profit carbon-offset company when there’s no shortage

of non-profits who will do the same thing. But in any case the whole system

of cruising around the web looking for a vaguely reputable carbon-offset company

is hugely inefficient. Already there’s a cacophony of competing standards, each

of which seeks to certify carbon offsets as being kosher: there’s the Voluntary

Carbon Standard, Green-e, CCB

Standards, the Gold Standard,

and, I’m sure, many others too. One could look in detail into all of them, and

then look for a merchant who was certified by as many of them as possible, but

it all seems like a huge onus to place on the consumer.

What’s more, the various different merchants offering carbon offsets differ

not only in how much they charge per ton of carbon offset, but also in terms

of how much carbon they consider a transatlantic flight, for instance, to emit.

Basically, the whole thing’s a mess. If you spend more money offsetting a ton

of carbon than your neighbor did, does that mean you were ripped off, or that

you just invested in a better project? Right now, nobody really knows.

What would be wonderful would be if there could be a genuine market in carbon

credits, rather than the inefficient mix of semi-competition and secretiveness

which characterizes the status quo. Prices have to become much more transparent

than they are now: merchants should sell their carbon offsets not directly to

consumers but rather only through a market with real price transparency. At

the very least, every trade should be reported to a central price recorder,

even if it was sold bilaterally.

If there were different prices for offsets certified by different standards

organizations, that would be fine: many people would be fine paying a little

more to be sure that their offsets were certified by the Gold Standard, for

instance. But right now, many people reasonably shun the carbon-offset industry

because they have no idea whether they’re simply being taken for a ride by the

likes of TerraPass. On the other side of the transaction, people setting up

wind turbines and the like have no way of making sure that they’re selling their

carbon credits to the highest bidder: a transparent market would help there,


There are already big international exchanges for industrial quantities of

carbon being traded under Kyoto-mandated cap-and-trade schemes. Can’t someone

come up with an exchange for much smaller quantities of carbon being traded

in the retail carbon-offset market?

Update: Russell Simon from

points me to a very

useful survey of how much different offset providers charge: anywhere, it

seems, from $3.96 to more than $41 per ton of carbon offset.

itself would seem to be a good choice: it’s not only significantly cheaper than

TerraPass, but is also a non-profit.

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