Here’s a typical scenario: The average Whole Foods shopper is waiting idly in line to buy his groceries and pack them into eco-friendly cloth bags.

As he edges forward, he spies -- between the Burt’s Bees lip balm and the 365 Organic chocolate caramel truffles -- a little gift card that claims to offset any greenhouse-gas emissions he may be responsible for. If he spends $15, the equivalent energy will be offset with clean wind,solaror other alternative energy sources.

Of course, the shopper wants to do something to cancel out his nasty carbon footprint. So he buys it, along with his all-natural oat cereal and sugar-free pomegranate juice.

Great, right?

In theory, sure. But how can buyers guarantee that the money they spend on carbon offsets is actually going where it says it will go?

The Center for Resource Solutions wants to make sure that offset programs do what they promise. At the Carbon Forum America conference starting Tuesday in San Francisco, the San Francisco-based organization plans to launch Green-e Climate, a consumer-protection program for retail carbon-emission offset products.

"We believe the market needs independent oversight in order to grow," said Green-e Climate manager Lars Kvale in a written statement. "The level of transparency Green-e Climate certification requires means that consumers will know where their offsets come from and have confidence that they are getting what they pay for."

It’s not the first effort to tackle the issue. Several carbon-offset companies, such as 3Degrees and Zerofootprint, have recently launched with claims that their offsets really work (see Carbon Offset Market Heats Up By 3Degrees and TechCrunch post). At the Carbon Forum alone, three other nonprofits initiatives that focus on offset integrity -- the Voluntary Carbon Standard, the Offset Quality Initiative and the Gold Standard -- are expected to speak about its importance.

And you can expect to see more startups pop up as the carbon markets grow.

The New York Mercantile Exchange said Monday it plans to launch its first group of greenhouse-gas contracts March 17, according to Reuters. The Green Exchange initiative, formed by a partnership between the NYMEX and energy brokerage Evolution Markets, will initially offer futures and options on carbon credits traded under the Kyoto Protocol, as well as futures on certified emissions reductions, and later plans to offer voluntary greenhouse-gas credits.

There’s more evidence the sector is maturing, too. GreenAir, which sells carbon credits, is planning an initial public offering in the next year, according to the Australian Financial Review (via Asia Cleantech). But Nick Campbell, an environmental manager at chemical group Arkema, said he expects carbon prices will be "extremely volatile" in the next couple of years as international climate negotiations continue (see Platts bulletin).

It’s all the more reason for even voluntary-offset companies to differentiate themselves by proving their offsets work. 

And that’s where Green-e Climate hopes to help.

The program claims its offsets will be connected with projects that are real, measured and independently verified. Projects will be transparent, Green-e Climate says, and are guaranteed not to be double counted, or to have variations between the seller’s supply of offsets versus what the consumer spends. "Building a credible voluntary-offset market is an important instrument for combating climate change," Kvale said.

But will the Green-e Climate program make a big difference in the voluntary carbon-offset market, or is this just empty rhetoric?

Joel Makower, the executive editor of Greenbiz.com, said the center’s attempt to ensure the reliability of the offsets is an important move.

"We need a standard that people trust," he said. "Until we have that, carbon offsets are going to continue to be the Wild West where anybody can claim pretty much anything and get away with it."

At the same time, the carbon-offset market is still new. Some analysts have said government regulation is the only way to make sure that offset programs will really do what they advertise, but with regional differences, an overarching law could be too broad of a move.

Rather, Makower said, established organizations like CRS might pave the way for other companies, at least regionally.

"Carbon offsets are still an immature product that are going to continue to be refined over the years … as the cost starts to get a little bit standardized and the quality continues to improve," he said. "It’s so early in the game that we’re still trying to figure out the rules."