It would be disastrous for Australia’s environment and for efforts to tackle climate change – as well as wildly inaccurate – if all carbon schemes based on tree planting (yesterday Item 3) were dismissed as attempts at cowboy profiteering without merit.

That’s why you won’t find environment groups such as WWF Australia or the Australian Conservation Foundation dismissing them out of hand, though they want them used carefully – and in the case of the ACF, apparently pretty much as a last resort.

Australia has some properly accredited carbon offset schemes that operate to extremely tough standards – and which help foster, rather than destroy, biodiversity. Anyone wanting to use offsets would do well to first make sure they have done everything to reduce their own greenhouse emissions – for example by looking for energy efficiency gains.

But nearly all companies and individuals wanting to go carbon neutral are going to have to use offsets. Yes, you can use offset programs that fund renewable energy or energy conservation projects – and we desperately need those. But if you pick the right tree-based program you will be funding projects that tackle Australia’s serious salinity problems, prevent erosion and revegetate denuded landscapes – and that’s a big plus. It’s your call.

The key question to ask of any tree-based offset project is whether it has accreditation under either the NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme or the federal Greenhouse Friendly scheme. If it is, you can relax. Administrators of both schemes are hard taskmasters.

NSW scheme requirements include that the planting be in place for a minimum of 100 years, that the obligation to maintain the carbon stock is on the land title (so the forest can’t be cleared if the land is sold) and that carbon stocks are maintained and measured in line with Australian Standard AS4978.1. There are auditing obligations and a requirement to report annually to the scheme administrator. Five tree-based schemes have been accredited so far.

Greenhouse Friendly requirements are similar – with the first accreditation rumoured to be waiting on ministerial announcement and others in the pipeline. Differences include a minimum lifespan for the planting of 70 years and a requirement that those seeking accreditation demonstrate their project involves plantings additional to business-as-usual activities.

If the tree-based offset project you’re considering isn’t accredited under either of these schemes – or well down the track of getting it – then ask a lot of questions before signing on.