The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins” (long PDF), a report from Carbon Trade Watch by Kevin Smith, is a new critique of the idea of carbon neutrality.

The press release says:

Carbon offsets are the modern day indulgences, sold to an increasingly carbon-conscious public to absolve their climate sins. Scratch the surface, however, and a disturbing picture emerges, where creative accountancy and elaborate shell games cover up the impossibility of verifying genuine climate-change benefits, and where communities in the South often have little choice as offset projects are inflicted on them.

The report also deals in more depth with an issue Grist has covered in passing — the energy-saving CFL bulbs Climate Care paid for in the South African urban township of Guguletu.

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The New York Times covered the obvious problem — that Eskom suffered a blackout and handed out the same type of bulb months after the project was paid for, thus taking credit for reductions that would have happened anyway. (This is a problem because people are using these offsets as permission to emit carbon elsewhere.)

But there are other problems with the Climate Care sponsored giveaway.

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  • Climate Care considered their job done when the light bulbs were handed out. They have no follow up to make sure the bulbs last the five to 10 years projected. (Anyone who has ever used a CFL knows they don’t often last five years.) Some 69 bulbs that burned out within the first few months were not replaced.
  • Climate Care paid for the bulbs and pamphlets, but the city had to pay for distribution (done through a local consultancy). Distribution was done by 10 low-paid distributors literally pulled off the streets. That means that the bulbs were distributed unaccompanied by any instruction about proper use. CFLs are actually dangerous in sealed fixtures, and have a low life in areas with high humidity or where they will be turned on and off 16 or more times daily.
  • According to Smith, Climate Care also failed to consider the social context of South Africa. By making the first widespread distribution of CFL lamps to poor people, it is possible that they will come to be considered “poor people’s” bulbs — which may provoke resistance later on from the South African middle class. I don’t know the South African social context either, so I don’t vouch for this last point, but if he is right, it is an interesting consideration.

To date, Climate Care has dismissed these concerns:

Despite these ambiguities, Climate Care’s annual report for 2005 considers the project done and dusted. None of these concerns are presented to its clients. Morton also dismisses the criticisms leveled against his company. According to him, “Carbon offsets are a first step towards pricing carbon in our lives as well as making real reductions in the process.”