Why does carbon offsetting struggle with its reputation?

Carbon offsetting has a reputation problem. Some parts of the ‘carbon’ industry act dishonestly or are not environmentally motivated, and people outside the industry tend to lump the diverse organisations involved in carbon trading together. When an exposé story appears in the media, we all suffer.

This week there was a story about suspected VAT fraud in carbon markets. Dodgy brokers were buying carbon credits abroad (which does not attract VAT), and then selling them in the UK and applying VAT. They are thought to have made £38m. It’s called carousel fraud or ‘missing trader’ fraud (because the broker disappears with the tax). One funny thing about this story is that none of the coverage says which market the fraud was in. Were these CDM credits (the carbon offsets that the UN allows governments to use)?

Twitter was full of people saying that this story confirmed carbon trading to be a con. Several newspapers referred to “so-called carbon credits”. Why “so-called”?

Another example is the campaigns by NGOs like Friends of the Earth and WWF against the use of offsets in statutory carbon trading schemes. Under the Kyoto Protocol, governments of rich countries can offset some of their emissions by funding projects in the developing world. The NGOs feel this allows them to wriggle out of their responsibilities.

Friends of the Earth said:

Dangerous climate change will be unavoidable if the UK, EU and USA succeed in increasing the use of carbon offsetting, Friends of the Earth is warning in a new report released today [Tuesday 2 June 2009] that exposes carbon offsetting as ineffective and damaging.

WWF:

The problem with carbon offsetting is that at best it robs Peter to pay Paul – with no net benefit for the planet. All too often, offsetting is simply used to justify business-as-usual behaviour in the UK and other countries.

These charities are referring to the CDM or whatever succeeds it when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. While both have misgivings about voluntary carbon offsetting, neither would object to its use by a company or individual who is doing all they can to reduce their own footprint. Unfortunately most people are not aware of the difference between voluntary and statutory carbon markets and articles like the above cast the whole sector in a poor light.

The challenge for organisations involved in carbon trading is to help their market understand what happens to their money. No customer can be expected to spend their money if they believe it will be appropriated by fraudsters.

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