Real, honest, true carbon offsets

Good news from the carbon-offset front: a serious attempt to set standards to distinguish real offsets from fly-by-night phoney ones is bearing fruit. The Voluntary Carbon Standard project has released its documentation (PDF) for how to prove you’ve got the real deal, based on the International Standards Organization’s nascent standard.

VCS isn’t the first to the market, but it’s aiming at a broad spectrum of potential offset-producers, including with a special category of oversight for so-called microprojects that would offset 5,000 tonnes or less of CO2 and equivalents per year. That’s a long way from giving you tradeable carbon credits for taking the bus instead of driving to work, but it’s big news if you’re anybody smaller than General Electric or Yahoo! or somebody, hoping to get into the offset business, and of course most of us are.

The main thing keeping offsets from being a legit way to make up for some of the evils we do is that they’re often unverifiable — God only knows what many self-described offset providers do with your money. Maybe nothing, or maybe they hire some shady characters overseas who’ll promise to plant trees that won’t last more than a season or two. Many are worthwhile, or at least are honest attempts to be, but that’s obviously not good enough if you’re a major corporation that wants to buy quite a lot of offsets that will stand up to serious scrutiny, or you’re an investor looking to front some money in exchange for offsets that you hope will be worth more later.

Goldman Sachs and Cantor Fitzgerald are in on this on this thing. The VCS project, like the Gold Standard, is a necessary step in making functioning markets in offsets that turn money into environmental improvements — and environmental improvements into money.

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