Will the rush for green pan out?

The planting of a new tree in Uganda.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Even the most environmentally conscious among us can never be truly green. Because there are things that are just too hard to give up — either personally or professionally. That carbon-spewing business flight across the country or a solo car trip to the supermarket. But our desire to do something has spawned a new guilt-based industry called carbon offsetting. Basically paying someone else to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions you or your company are unwilling to cut yourselves. And there's a lot of money being thrown around. From American Radioworks, Claire Schoen reports.


Claire Schoen: In the U.S., where carbon is not yet regulated, a voluntary market in carbon offsets has sprung up. Companies are buying them to green their image. And consumers worried about their impact on global warming are getting interested as well. You can go up on a website today, enter the destination of your upcoming vacation and then pay a fee to offset the CO2 emissions from your plane flight -- with new trees.

Some of those trees are being planted at Kibale National Park, Uganda. The Uganda Wildlife Authority has contracted with a carbon offset company called the FACE Foundation to plant 86,000 acres of native trees. Uganda gets money to plant the trees and FACE gets "carbon credits" for the CO2 those trees will soak up from the atmosphere as they grow. Then FACE sells the carbon credits to industries and to consumers.

Dan Lashof, a climate scientist at the National Resources Defense Council says there are several reasons why tree planting has been the most popular offset option till now.

Dan Lashof: Because it's relatively inexpensive. And conceptually it's maybe easier to grasp and so that there's a public relations value of saying, "You're putting carbon into the atmosphere from your tailpipe and you've got a tree somewhere that's taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into the tree."

Sam Mwanda is in charge of planting the trees for the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

Sam Mwanda: Uganda plants the trees that get the carbon from the atmosphere. And as it grows, we are all able to, you know, save the world, so to say.

But the planting here has come at a cost to the local population. At a village about a mile from the Kibale tree plantation, subsistence farmers say they were driven off the land where these trees are now being planted.

Speaking through a translator, one farmer explained what happened to him:

Villager [interpreter]: I was in Kibale National Park before coming here. It was the police and the military that came in and forcefully evicted us by a process of burning houses. Everything of my household was burned.

But Sam Mwanda of the Uganda Wildlife Authority says the farmers were squatters, living in the Park illegally. Along with the social costs of this operation, there is also debate about whether trees actually work as carbon offsets at all. Climate scientist Dan Lashof says that's because trees are only effective in holding carbon while they're standing. When they die and decompose, the process is reversed.

Lashof: And that would take all the carbon dioxide that over a period of years was taken out of the atmosphere and put it back in the atmosphere very quickly. And at the end of the day you haven't accomplished what you were planning to accomplish.

Lashof says because of this, trees are becoming less popular as offsets. He prefers cow manure.

And there's a lot of it at the Holsum Dairy in eastern Wisconsin. Manure releases methane, a greenhouse gas that's 23 times more destructive than CO2. A company called Driving Green has contracted with the dairy to buy carbon credits for capturing the methane that's released from their cow's manure.

Duane Toenges, U.S. manager for Driving Green, was at the Holsum Dairy recently to check out his offset project.

Duane Toenges: The dairy we're visiting here today . . . at one time the manure would have went into a storage lagoon and methane is then emitted into the atmosphere. What Driving Green does is we work with people to help them capture that methane. Because of the fact that we can document that that methane was not emitted, we can sell it as an offset.

Kenn Buelow: You can see the grates inside the freestalls. And we'll just push our manure down into that. And then we have gravity flow from here to the digester.

As farmer Kenn Buelow explains, the digester captures the methane released from the manure and then uses this natural gas to run an electrical generator.

Buelow: Our electricity goes out to the grid. So we sell it all back to the utility. And that's what makes it economical, makes us allowed to do it, is generation of electrical power.

Buelow also recycles the manure into fertilizer.

Buelow: This was manure 20 days ago, before it went through the digester and separators. We have gardeners that will come and put it right into their garden. And we actually sell it to about 7 other dairies for bedding as well.

So, the farmer is making money from the carbon offsets. And Driving Green is investing in an offset project that looks attractive to environmentally minded customers — betting that consumers will become more savvy about exactly where their offsets are coming from.

I'm Claire Schoen for Marketplace and American Radio Works.

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