I have also recently been asked by our resident lurker to comment on dodgy providers of carbon dioxide offsets and the pursuit of those making false claims or making fraudulent deals by the consumer watchdog, the ACCC. In reading the summary’s of the cases being made by the ACCC, they seem to be of a couple varieties, including those making false or misleading claims about their offset credits, to those engaged in actual fraud by taking money from clients to buy carbon offset credits and then not doing so.

Whether or not the ACCC will prevail in its cases is uncertain, but my gut feel is that if they take a claim to court, they usually have a pretty good case. However, proving that case in court is another matter, as evidenced by the judgments against the securities watchdog (ASIC) in cases that were widely considered to be very good. One of these cases is a not-for-profit that is apparently making unsupported claims about the superior value of its credits and services. This may be difficult to prove, and more difficult to prove as malicious, given the fairly confusing landscape with regard to environmental claims. The more easy case to prove (the fraud case) is probably already moot as the company is not longer operating and a court has ordered the former directors to buy the credits it failed to previously.

Another colleague asked me a week ago about how her organisation could buy offset credits. I explained to her the process of getting an inventory of emissions certified, and also buying certified credits. She didn’t quite understand why both the emitter and the seller of the credits required independent verification, and that got me to thinking that maybe it isn’t all as simple as I think it is. So I backed up, and started over on the basis of the concept of trust. To be truly greenhouse neutral means that I have to trust what your emissions are, and I have to trust that you bought real offsets. That helped clarify it for her. The introduction of the National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS) may improve things somewhat by further clarifying what is and what is not genuine reduction in greenhouse gases that can be traded, and doing away with some types of credits that are of debatable validity. But it won’t make things crystal clear in all situations, and the purchase of credits will always require a well informed buyer.

My rule of thumb is to first see if you can tie the credits you want to buy to a clear standard (like the NCOS) with independent verification and oversight by a government accredited program. Then, do a bit more research on the company offering the credits, particularly if they are sourced internationally. A relatively simple internet search can usually tell you a lot. Reputable companies probably have a background and history in some type of environmental work. If you cannot find anything about the company, I would worry a bit. If you can find some information, and it tells you that the head of the company offering the credits was a disqualified horse trainer in Australia that now lives in PNG and once ran Philippine cockfighting ring, I would probably move on to the next one.