Investing in saving the planet


But there's a warning about investing in the environment.

We've been hearing a lot about carbon footprints these days, but just who's making sure you get what you pay for?

It takes a lot of electricity to run an Internet service provider in Berkeley.

So when owner Cory Levenberg saw a chance to do some good for the planet to make up for all that energy, he jumped at the chance.

"It was very important to us to reduce our carbon footprint," said Levenberg.

Many of the things we take for granted -- from driving, to flying, even turning on the lights produce carbon dioxide.

A carbon footprint is the collective measurement of the amount of green house gases emitted by all that activity.

"Global warming is not an issue that can be left alone. I am a small player, so whatever small part I can do to offset the impact that I have is worth it to me," said Levenberg.

Levenberg turned to TerraPass, a for profit company in San Francisco that calculates a person's carbon footprint and then sells offsets.

Those are investments in green or renewable resources like windmill farms.

"TerraPass is basically a way to do something about climate change. Most people don't realize that they can do it and figure out how much that they are putting into the atmosphere in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, and that they can go in and purchase verified measurable reductions in carbon dioxide. And that's what we do," said TerraPass CEO Erik Blanchford.

TerraPass sponsors some of the green power sources around the globe.

On their Web site you can purchase a TerraPass. Each pass is equivalent to 10 tons of carbon dioxide that is not being put into the environment.

TerraPass is one of a number of companies selling carbon offsets. The price varies depending on the projects a company invests in.

Levenberg says he pays $600 a year to offset 60 metric tons of carbon dioxide produced by his servers.

"Everything not only has to be verified but it has to be registered so it can't ever be double counted and it can't ever be sold twice," said Blachford.

Because so many offset projects are so far away from the consumers who buy them, how do you make sure what you buy - is what you get?

It turns out the Federal Trade Commission is wondering the same thing. They want to make sure companies selling offsets are being honest, not just selling hot air.

"There is an opportunity for people to be deceptive," said James Kohm from the Federal Trade Commission. "Even if I got there, it would be hard for me to verify that scientifically the amount of carbon that was claimed was actually being offset or that somebody else didn't pay for that offset - the same off set that I did."

One San Francisco non-profit is hoping to keep offset businesses honest.

The Center for Resource Solutions runs the Green-e Climate Program. It is a "seal of approval" that verifies companies are selling what they claim.

"There is a need for an independent body to come in, and make sure that when you give a company your money for an offset, you are actually getting what you paid for," said Jennifer Martin from the Center For Resource Solutions.

Under the Green-e program, companies voluntarily submit to close scrutiny to make sure carbon offset sellers can back up their claims. Four companies have already signed on.

"A lot of companies in the offset markets as well as a lot of other environmental organizations and even businesses that want to buy offsets, are happy to see a program like this, because if gives them the confidence that when they spend this money they are really making a difference," said Martin.

Another source for clean energy and carbon offsets is 3 Degrees. They are among the first to get the Green-e certification.

"For those who are calling for greater standardization of the market, this is the perfect program that they have been waiting for. Because it independently audits us, the provider to make sure that we actually deliver what we promise," said Gabe Petlin from 3 Degrees.

But while the industry works out its standards, those who are already buying carbon offsets are still trusting it's making a difference.

"I do think it's an ethical and moral responsibility for all people to get involved in this, both businesses and individuals," said Levenberg

The Federal Trade Commission is hoping to provide more consumer protection by making changes to its guides for the use of environmental marketing claims, commonly known as the green guides.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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