They are marketed as a solution for companies and consumers looking to erase their carbon footprint, with promises that money spent on “offsets” will go to projects that mitigate greenhouse gas, like tree planting or land preservation.

But this global network of loosely monitored credits is in chaos. Lack of oversight, inadequate scientific review and faulty accounting have left the voluntary offset market awash in credits that studies conclude are not coming close to canceling out the level of emissions claimed, and often not erasing any.

As the world’s climate goals slip further from reach, activists, regulators and companies are scrambling for fixes, warning that keeping warming in check may hinge on their success. One of the most ambitious initiatives launches Wednesday, when the Rockefeller Foundation unveils a pioneering plan to create offsets targeted at shutting down heavily polluting coal plants in developing Asian economies.

The goal is to show offsets can, indeed, be a credible and effective way to slow warming, rather than a Rube Goldberg-like mechanism enabling companies to skirt their climate commitments.

“There has been a lot of sloppy thinking” in the offset industry, said Joseph Curtin, managing director of Rockefeller’s power and climate team. “It has led to bad practices and over crediting.”

This is particularly true in places such as the United States that lack a federal climate policy guiding how businesses ramp down their emissions. In that vacuum, a voluntary offset system emerged through which corporations set their own climate goals and purchase the credits to help meet them. Companies also sell credits directly to consumers of such things as plane tickets and rental cars, promising that a few extra bucks will cancel out the emissions created by the travel.

But the system, managed by an unregulated industry of credit sellers, is often opaque and dysfunctional. In numerous cases, assertions that projects are lowering global emissions have been debunked by scientific evidence showing otherwise. At least one offsets leader has overhauled its methodology.

The foundation’s goal is to offer companies that purchase the credits concrete proof that they helped speed the retirement of dirty coal plants that would have been operating years longer but for the offsets. Carbon credits have never before been used to decommission coal plants. The energy is replaced with clean power through the program, and workers in shuttered coal plants will be provided alternative employment.

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It is not a cheap endeavor. The foundation would not talk publicly about the cost of the credits it plans to sell once the project is operational or identify the companies expressing interest in buying them. But one of the challenges faced by the Rockefeller-sponsored effort, called the Coal to Clean Credit Initiative, is the market is awash in flawed credits that can be bought for a fraction of the price of those used to shut down coal plants.

“A lot of revenue will be needed to make this work,” Curtin said. “The question is, will we find purchasers?”

The target buyers, program officials say, are financially flush corporations in sectors such as tech or banking that have made ambitious commitments to erase their carbon footprints but are struggling to find a viable path to fulfill them.

The program will get underway in the Philippines, working with the ACEN South Luzon Thermal Energy Corp. to shut down a large coal plant it operates there. The plant has contracts to run through 2040. Officials at the Rockefeller Foundation are aiming to sell credits to close the plant a decade earlier. Doing so, they say, would avert as much as 19 million tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. The central bank of Singapore has also joined the effort.

“The reality is that we are going backwards in the fight against climate change and in advancing the energy transition needed in developing countries,” said Rajiv J. Shah, president of the foundation. “If we don’t make progress this decade on increasing private investment into speeding their transition away from coal and into cleaner forms of energy, we will lose the fight on climate, period.”

The Philippines plant is among the 6,500 coal-fired units around the world, most of them locked into operating for years into the future through long-term energy contracts. They are projected to dump more than 190 billion tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere during that time.

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Developing credible offsets to shut them down is a heavy lift, as they must be structured in a way that prevents shrewd energy companies from cashing in on the credits and building more coal plants nearby. But replacing the lost energy with clean power is a costly endeavor, involving not just solar panels or wind turbines, but also industrial-scale batteries that can store the clean energy so it can be fed back onto the grid when there is no sunshine or wind.

Retraining a local workforce accustomed to working in the coal mines and serving the coal industry is also a major undertaking. Many of the carbon credits on the market today don’t address such issues.

“These coal plants are tied to people’s lives and livelihoods,” Curtin said. “You can’t just shut it down and leave. It is not just morally wrong, but it also means you quickly lose your social license to operate.”



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