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Can you buy your way to green?

As "carbon footprint" consciousness grows, so, too, does the emerging "carbon offset" industry.

Consumers and businesses can purchase credits said to offset carbon dioxide or CO2-equivalent gases created by driving, flying or using electricity. But experts say environmentally minded buyers should beware of this unregulated market.

Definition of 'offset'

Buying carbon offsets is essentially investing in projects that aim to reduce greenhouse gases. For example, say you feel guilty about driving your gas-guzzling car from Fort Worth to Los Angeles and back.

You can calculate the amount of harmful emissions from your vehicle and purchase credits from companies that purportedly offset damage to the environment by planting trees, capturing methane gas from landfills or agriculture, or running renewable energy projects such as solar or wind electric generators, among other things.

Who sells them

"Who doesn't?" might be a better question. Dozens of companies sell offsets online, as do energy providers and travel companies including Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz. There's even a MasterCard with a carbon-offset reward program. According to ICF International, a global research and consulting firm, the industry generated $110 million in sales last year.

The cost

A typical credit offsets 1 ton of carbon dioxide or CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases and can cost from $4 to $25.

The criticisms

The industry is completely unregulated and has few standards. That makes it difficult to determine which companies and projects are legitimate.

"In the absence of an accepted standard, almost anyone can offer to sell you almost anything and claim that this purchase will make you carbon neutral," according to Trexler Climate + Energy Services, which reviewed 30 offset companies for Clean Air/Cool Planet, an environmental group based in Portsmouth, N.H.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based nonprofit working for a cleaner environment, warns that some offset programs may not provide the promised reductions, said energy analyst Jeff Deyett. Programs may have been funded from other sources, making the carbon-offset money redundant.

Who's scrutinizing them

The Federal Trade Commission announced last month that it is looking into unfair and deceptive marketing practices in the industry, said Laura DeMartino, FTC assistance director for enforcement. Before the end of the year, the agency is planning a public workshop to explore carbon offsets in more detail, she said.

The Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency are also considering further scrutiny of the industry. Congress is looking at possible regulations and has asked the Government Accountability Office to report on the industry.

Company's response

Tom Boucher, chief executive officer with NativeEnergy, a carbon-offset company based in Charlotte, Vt., said he welcomes government scrutiny. "We recognize that state and regional regulations of greenhouse-gas emissions are just now being developed, and it seems possible that federal legislation and regulations could be adopted in the coming years," Boucher said.

Boucher said his company works within the guidelines established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Those guidelines are based on adding projects through offsets with "both financial need and technology barriers that must be overcome," Boucher said.

For more information

Trexler Climate + Energy Services ranks 30 companies based on seven criteria it developed, including transparency of the projects and company, attention to offset quality and third-party protocols and validation. The full report, "A Consumers' Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers," can be found at www.cleanair-coolplanet.org.

The Environmental Defense Fund's choices for carbon offsets can be found on its Web site, www.fightglobalwarming.org. The projects center on companies that capture emissions from landfills and agriculture waste, and use the gases to generate electricity.

How to purchase wisely

The Union of Concerned Scientists recommends buying offsets that develop renewable energy projects, because of their obvious link to reducing greenhouse gases, Deyett said, adding that consumers should ask lots of questions and verify projects.

Whichever carbon-offset company you choose, treat it like you would any other online company -- read the Web site thoroughly, look for third-party verification, check if the company is private or a nonprofit.

If you're not comfortable with what you see, don't buy.

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