This story is part of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s multimedia climate change investigation, which includes the documentary Hot Politics, airing on PBS’s Frontline April 24, and at pbs.org/frontline
Tom Arnold, a self-described “environmental nerd from San Francisco,” had a pair of gifts for many of the Hollywood celebrities at February’s seventy-ninth Academy Awards show: a crystal raindrop tchotchke crafted by a Vermont glassblower, and with it a certificate for 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide reductions.
Arnold runs TerraPass, a web-based startup company that bills itself as “a leading retailer of carbon offsets”–the latest trend in green marketing, aimed at affluent, eco-sensitive consumers eager to fight global warming. Criticism of the extravagant gift bags offered to Academy stars in years past–the free jewelry, high-end cosmetics and other expensive goodies created unexpected tax liabilities and unflattering press coverage–led to discontinuing the practice, until Arnold suggested a gift enabling those who are among our highest energy users to lighten their “carbon footprint.”
The Oscar gift packs–dispensed to ninety carbon-emitting Hollywood icons, including Jack Nicholson, Cameron Diaz and Clint Eastwood–were a publicity coup for TerraPass. “If we want to influence a big environmental issue, engaging celebrities and engaging people’s heroes and role models is a really good place to start,” he says. “You get tremendous leverage.”
TerraPass and a burgeoning number of carbon offset services help people calculate how much carbon dioxide they generate, and how much investment is needed in carbon-reducing technologies to make up for–“offset”–the damage caused by their activities. Essentially it’s a form of self-taxation: If the government and mega-corporations won’t fund the switch from a fossil fuel-based economy to an alt-energy system, the consumer can. In recent years offsetting has ballooned into an annual business of $30 million. But some environmentalists are decidedly skeptical of the concept, seeing the industry as akin to the medieval church practice of selling indulgences to sinners–noblemen who ate meat on Friday or did something bad to a servant girl could, with the proper donation, have their spiritual records expunged. The eco-fantasy of offsets allows people the illusion of having it both ways: Burn lots of jet fuel but avoid doing harm.
On a practical level, while the money raised by offsets can be useful, new doubts are emerging about the industry’s basic accounting. A December 2006 survey of the offset business, compiled by a team of specialists in the field, criticized the majority of the companies hawking the product. “There are no widely accepted standards…as to what qualifies as an ‘offset’ for purposes of making consumers carbon neutral,” notes the report, titled A Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers. “Almost anyone can offer to sell you almost anything and claim that this purchase will make you carbon neutral.” Commissioned by Clean Air-Cool Planet, the study looked at thirty firms and gave the majority of them poor marks.