I'm not a convert to buying carbon offsets. Nothing I've seen offers what finance folks call "transparency" on exactly what I would be buying.
You can actually request financial statements of US charities. (And some, like Freecycle and NRDC, actually post their financials online.) Same thing with an investment in a publicly held company.
So if 80% of donations are going to salaries, and only 20% to the cause, you can find out. The charity itself is "transparent"; you can see through the organization and observe how your money is being used.
Charity Navigator serves as a rating agency for charitable organizations; they do the legwork to read the financial statements and make ratings. (I used this at Christmastime, to choose charitable donations I could give as gifts. ) A friend who is a development officer at a not-for-profit social services organization affirms Charity Navigator as a credible information source.
But thus far, I haven't seen this kind of transparency on carbon offsets.
Planet Ark quotes PointCarbon, indicating that carbon trading has become a 20 billion EUR industry. (And Planet Ark is an arm of Reuters, which gives me some faith that facts and figures have been checked.)
Every financial transaction has a buy side, and a sell side. So let's call the permit to emit greenhouse gases the buy side. Carbon offsets are permits to offset emissions, and become one piece of the sell side.
So gentle carbon offsets are likely destined become part of complex financial instruments. (Yoga Journal's April 2007 issue touts carbon offsets as "eco-fabulous". Hmmm.)
Planet Ark indicates that markets can't figure out how to price permits to emit greenhouse gases.
This is good news. Any time a market is this large, the analytical skill of financial institutions worldwide will be focused on everything carbon.
This includes the sell side...which means that we'll ultimately get some transparency on what we're being sold when we buy carbon offsets.
If carbon offsets have substance, finance geeks will derive it via financial analysis, and the collective conscious we call "the market" will give it a price greater than zero. (And full disclosure: I'm a finance geek, too.)
Until then, I'm still not buying. (My choice on how to save the world by using money? I'll make a donation to a charity, one I believe uses resources wisely.)