Carbon Trade


warming has spawned a new form of commerce: the carbon trade. This
new economic activity involves the buying and selling of “environmental
services,” including the removal of greenhouse gases from the
atmosphere, which are identified and purchased by eco-consulting
firms and then sold to individual or corporate clients to “offset”
their polluting emissions. While some NGOs and “green”
businesses favor the carbon trade and view it as a win-win solution
that reconciles environmental protection with economic prosperity,
other environmentalists and grassroots organizations claim that
it is no solution to environmental problems such as global warming. 

trade works like this: an eco-consultancy that brokers environmental
services conducts an eco-audit of a client and comes up with a presumably
accurate estimate of how much carbon the client’s activities
release into the atmosphere. Carbon is the common denominator in
all polluting gases that cause global warming. At the other end
of the operation, the firm scours the world in search of environmental
services that could offset its client’s emissions. These services
are usually forests and tree-planting projects and are known in
the business as carbon assets or carbon sinks, because trees remove
carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in their wood. The activity
of these sinks is often called carbon sequestration. 

a variety of methodologies, the environmental services broker arrives
at an estimate of how much carbon a particular sink sequesters,
and then assigns it a monetary value and sells it to a client. The
client then substracts from its carbon account the carbon sequestered
by its newly purchased carbon sink. The client is said to be carbon-neutral
or climate-neutral when its carbon assets equal its carbon emissions. 

carbon trade is legitimized by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)
of the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that aims to deal
with the threat of global warming. The CDM is one of the Protocol’s
market-based “flexible” mechanisms, which include emissions
trading and joint implementation.  

examples of environmental services brokers in the carbon trade are
Climate Care and Future Forests. The London-based Climate Care is
a non-profit organization that sells carbon offsets to individuals
and companies and uses the money to invest in climate-friendly projects,
like wilderness protection in Uganda, energy efficiency in the Indian
Ocean island state of Mauritius, and small-scale hydro power in
Bulgaria. Its corporate clients are mostly travel agencies like
Ecotours, Whale Watch Azores, Nature Trek, and Andante. 

for-profit Future Forests, also based in England, says on its web
page: “We help you to see how much CO


is produced by the things you do, and suggest ways you can reduce
those emissions. What you can’t reduce, we can neutralise (or
‘offset’) for you—by planting trees that reabsorb


and by investing in projects that cut down CO


emissions, such as those which use renewable energy sources.” 

Forest’s clients include celebrities like Pink Floyd, Simply
Red, Kitaro, and film director Ridley Scott, and corporations like
Fiat, Mazda, Volvo, Marriott Hotels, Tower Records, BP, Price Waterhouse
Coopers, Warner Brothers, and Harper Collins. 

some environmental organizations believe that the activities of
these two institutions are no help to world climate, and they released
a joint communique on this matter in May 2004. 

communique included declarations by Heidi Bachram of Carbon Trade
Watch, a group campaigning to curb global warming: “We are
concerned that these companies are indirectly blocking the real
solution to global warming, which is reducing and finally halting
fossil fuel burning. The idea that people can burn fossil fuels
and then plant trees to clean up the carbon dioxide which results
is simply wrong. This false ‘solution’ will merely keep
people digging up oil and coal, instead of trying to shift to clean

that a tonne of carbon stored in trees is the same as a tonne of
fossil carbon ignores the very basics of the natural carbon cycle,”
said Jutta Kill, director of SinksWatch, an organization that monitors
projects claiming to neutralize fossil fuel pollutants. “There
is enormous scientific controversy about how much carbon dioxide
any given tree-planting can take out of the air, and for how long.” 

a difference between planting trees, which benefits the climate,
and planting trees as part of a program sanctioning further fossil
fuel burning, which does not,” states Mandy Haggith of Worldforests.
“It’s the difference between green action and green- wash.” 

be able to say you’ve ‘neutralized’ the emissions
from your car by investing in efficient stoves or machinery, you
have to be able to calculate exactly how much of an improvement
over ‘business as usual’ you’re making,” says
Larry Lohmann of the campaigning group The Corner House. “But
there are huge disputes raging over these calculations. Experts
are coming up with estimates that differ by orders of magnitude.” 

to Oilwatch, “‘carbon sinks’ are not the solution
and they will bring more problems, without solving the root cause
of the problem. Like it or not the industrialized countries—which
are responsible for the climatic tragedy that is occurring—have
a great problem to solve and that is the reduction of emissions
and the transition to clean, renewable and low impact energy sources.
Only then could a solution to the future of the Earth and its inhabitants
become possible.” 

real solution is the conservation of energy, the reduction of consumption,
a more equitable use of resources and equitable development and
distribution of clean and renewable low impact energy sources,”
states the World Rainforest Movement. 

while it is almost a platitude to say so, the political will of
governments will be necessary. This is scarce, and when it does
exist, it must face very powerful and implacable interests.” 


Carmelo Ruiz
is an environmental reporter.  His writings have been published

Grist Magazine,


New York Daily
News, E Magazine

, the


, and
other media.