Carbon Trading

The carbon offset market is set to take off. But could U.S. businesses end up buying a lot of hot air?

In northern Louisiana, ecologists are creating a new forest — one Beetle at a time. In a floodplain known as the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, nearly 250,000 trees are being planted by a not-for-profit group called Carbonfund.org. Funding for the massive project, however, is coming from a decidedly for-profit outfit: Volkswagen of America.

Like dozens of other businesses in the United States, the VW unit is tying reforestation to a promotional campaign. In Volkswagen’s case, the company claims the planting of the trees, which take in carbon dioxide, will negate the tailpipe fumes for one year for every car VW sold during the past four months. In “greenspeak,” Volkswagen is offsetting its downstream CO2 emissions. In plainer English, the conversion of farmland to forest will — in theory — capture 372,000 tons of CO2, which Carbonfund.org claims will help combat global warming.

The truth is a bit more cloudy. If tracts of the forest burn, much of the trapped CO2 will go straight back into the atmosphere. What’s more, a recent academic study found that trees planted in the midlatitude regions — such as North America — tend to radiate heat, and therefore may ultimately increase global warming. Although the study hasn’t been peer reviewed, it underscores a basic problem with carbon offsets: they may not do a whole lot of good.

In the main, finance chiefs seem blissfully unaware of the disconnect. In fact, most CFOs don’t seem to be paying any attention to the emerging complexities of carbon credits. Such ignorance could prove costly to shareholders. A growing number of state emission mandates, such as those imposed in California, are already beginning to create regulatory headaches for some businesses. Federal carbon caps, expected within the next three years, will raise the pain to a whole new level.

A few finance managers, with an eye toward coming national regulations, are already purchasing high-quality offsets at relatively low prices. When federal legislation hits, the clutch of credits could be turned into a source of windfall profits for their companies. Conversely, CFOs who don’t understand the complexities of carbon commodities could find themselves paying high prices for low-quality offsets in a seller’s market. And make no mistake, federal carbon legislation will almost assuredly trigger a steep rise in the price of CO2 credits.

Nevertheless, many CFOs seem content to let other departments deal with the risks that come with carbon credits. Leo Denault, executive vice president and CFO at New Orleans–based utility Entergy, believes that’s a mistake. “Carbon will be a valuable commodity some day,” he predicts. “The last thing you want as CFO is a guy in your environmental engineering group making policy decisions around commodity risk management.”

Managers at some businesses, like VW and Expedia.com, see immediate value in carbon credits. They use the credits to help customers offset the carbon output from products and services. Others, like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Timberland, purchase credits to help reach “carbon-neutrality” — CO2 nirvana, where carbon discharges (known as a carbon footprint or profile) are offset by carbon reductions.

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