Carbon offsets, which let you pay some money to help fund climate-friendly projects, get the love-hate treatment in today’s New York Times.
At issue: are they for real, or just some sort of gimmick? By contributing money to an offset program, are you really expiating your climate sins, or are you just buying meaningless indulgences?
The article finds lots of quotes from people who are skeptical about offsets. But to me, this is mostly a manufactured controversy—an attempt to find a green schism where none really exists.
As far as I can tell, there’s a middle ground on the issue that most people already agree on: namely, that carbon offsets are simultaneously worthwhile and a gimmick. A worthwhile gimmick, if you will.
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First off: voluntary carbon offsets can’t be a complete solution to global warming. Not now, not ever. They’re completely voluntary, so only a fraction of us will ever sign up.
But as far as I can tell, almost nobody’s actually claiming that offsets are a panacea. Except for a handful of true believers, perhaps, most folks see voluntary offsets as small piece of a much larger puzzle (or, perhaps, a solution in microcosm).
Either way, “supporters” and “critics” agree: voluntary offsets alone won’t save the climate. No controversy there, really. (Sorry, Times.)
As for the projects themselves: sure, not every one is well designed; a few are somewhat shifty; some even spark controversy, and rightly so. Still, the large majority of these projects—building wind farms, or replanting forests, or weatherizing people’s homes—seem to be the sorts of things we really should be doing anyway, no matter what kind of climate policy is in effect.
Of course, a few folks such as the redoubtable Charles Komonoff, point out that there may be a downside to offsets:
…[B]y suggesting there’s an easy way out, [carbon offsets] blunt public support for what will really be needed in the long run: …a binding limit on emissions or a tax on the fuels that generate greenhouse gases.
In the abstract, I’ve got some sympathy for this point of view. And I’ve got tons of respect for Komonoff. But in practice, it seems to me that the large majority of people and organizations who buy carbon offsets would be delighted with a more aggressive climate policy.
Of course, I’ve got no actual data to back this up. But most of the people I know who’ve contributed to an offset program are pretty deep greenies. It’s just that given the current policy environment, they view the purchase of an offset as the most effective way of “voting with their wallet” to stop climate change.
In other words, buying carbon offsets is more a sign of support for progressive climate policy than a substitute for it. Some people might be buying indulgences, and continuing to sin; but most of us are just trying to do some good.
But that brings up an interesting question: are offsets really the most cost-effective way to curb climate change? Here, I may disagree with some folks: while I think that offsets are nifty, I don’t think they’re the best buy for the climate.
For what it’s worth, my spare time and money goes to politcs and climate advocacy. To me, the real challenge is to turn climate offsets from a peculiar niche market into a major component of regional and national policy. Voluntary offsets are nice, and have their place in showing us that climate stewardship is both possible and economically feasible; and I expect that their use may grow as climate policy evolves. But for my money, the first step for protecting the actual climate is to change the political climate.
Still, that’s no “schism” over the merits of climate offsets. It’s just a difference of emphasis. And if the Times wants to look for actual controversy over climate policy, there are much, much more important things to look at.
I agree that there isn’t much of a controversy. The troubling exception, however, is the continued use of the term “carbon neutral” which is being promoted by the offset industry. Most of us can’t eliminate all of the carbon emitting behaviors in our lives, but we shouldn’t be able to claim “carbon neutrality” because we’re able to write a check. We need to be comfortable with the notion that there is still work to be done, and that the consequences of our actions can’t be neatly reconciled. Fundamental changes are needed in industries such as power generation and air travel, and we need to make sure the use of offsets doesn’t suppress consumer demand for those innovations.
The problem I see, Clark, is that sooner or later the “gimmicks” will become “shams” will become “fraud.” When that hits the fan, the entire anti-global warming community will get smeared, rightly or wrongly, and all “solutions” will be suspect. We need to put in place as soon as possible some third party to certify these things or we are asking for trouble. Paul Birkeland
Paul – I agree. Some of the carbon cap & trade proposals out there would rely pretty heavily on offsets of various sorts—that is, utility A can still buy its natural gas, but it has to guarantee that say, landfill methane somewhere is recaptured and reused. Without any certification & standards, though, those “offsets” pretty quickly become useless. Patrick -I hadn’t thought about that. You’re right.
To me “carbon offsets” = “voluntary carbon tax”. Our family has been calculating our carbon emissions and buying offsets for two years now. We first and foremost work to reduce our carbon…and we have done things like giving up flying and riding thousands of kilometers on our electric bike instead of driving. But we still are far from zero and so where we do emit carbon we pay a carbon tax to discourage our use and to fund alternatives. it’s not rocket science to find decent places to invest the money to help create de-carbonized alternatives.If you think a carbon tax is a good idea you should be paying it now and not waiting for big government to force you to. I feel like the “controversy” is more about people wanting to sit in the big cushy critic’s chair and pooh pooh with moral righteousness rather than open the wallet and pay the bill we all know we should be paying.Also, the voluntary carbon tax is needed to convince government that it can move in this direction. Since when is government going to force a new tax on people when even the proponents are not paying it? In fact by saying that the voluntary carbon tax is not effective you are making the argument that a mandatory one is similarly useless. Either paying a carbon tax discourages use or it doesn’t. Which way do you want to argue? Please explain how a mandatory carbon tax will cause a person to reduce carbon use but a voluntary one won’t. We need millions more people publicly paying a voluntary carbon tax before you are going to get the governments making it required policy for everyone. We need millions of dollars poured into alternative energy options asap. So what if some people get to feel smug when they should not…and some spend the money in the wrong place? Every system has some waste and problems. But we need a carbon tax and all of us who know that and believe in it should be leading the way by paying it and making it happen.
clarification: in reading my post above i see it sounds like i’m saying that Clark’s article is saying that a voluntary carbon tax is not effective. Obviously that isn’t true. I can’t find how to edit my original post, but i would rephrase the third paragraph to be:”Also, the voluntary carbon tax is needed to convince government that it can move in this direction. Since when is government going to force a new tax on people when many proponents are not only not paying it, but arguing that it isn’t effective? Anyone that says that the voluntary carbon tax doesn’t reduce carbon emissions better have a very strong argument to convince people that a mandatory one isn’t similarly useless. Either paying a carbon tax discourages use or it doesn’t. Which way do you want to argue? If you think carbon offsets don’t discourage carbon use, please explain to me how a mandatory carbon tax will cause a person to reduce carbon use but a voluntary one won’t.”
Barry –I think you’re right. If you, barry, think of a carbon offset as a personal carbon tax, it’s likely to change your behavior. I’ve done the same thing myself; I used to “tax” myself for every dollar I spent on gas, by giving an equivalent dollar to charity. And even though I was doing this mostly as a way to boost my charitable contributions, it did make me think twice about my own gas purchases.That said, choosing to tax yourself can make *you* conserve. But your conservation is subtly & minutely affecting the entire price system: you reduce demand, which reduces prices, which spurs *others* to use a bit more. It’s often called the “rebound” effect, and it’s well-described here:http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2499So “rebound” effects suggest this: let’s say half the population agrees to a voluntary tax, and that this would lead to an overall, economy-wide emissions reduction of X tons; but if there were a mandatory tax that applied to the *whole* population, then the emissions reductions would be greater than 2X tons. Perhaps significantly greater. Am I making any sense here? I hope so—but I don’t have time right now to clean this up. Sorry.
There’s another point that needs to be noted here. Carbon offset funds are the seed money for what is expected to become a huge amount of green industries. They are helping to drive the costs of alternate energy generation down and to explore what is truely economic and effective in the climate change arena. Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Thriving on less driving
Once someone decides on a voluntary carbon tax, the questions continue – because some offsets probably do a lot of good and others perhaps not. When I looked into it, I found that offset vendors sell commodities arising from four distinctly different sources: 1) US state regulations created in Renewable Energy Certificates; 2) the Kyoto Protocal created Certified Emissions Reductions; 3) non-governmental carbon reduction initiatives; and 4) voluntary cap-and-trade markets for corporations. Here are a few details from my research: 1. Renewable Energy Certificates:Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) are created by the policies of 20 US states which require their power companies to obtain a minimum percentage of their power from renewable energy resources. These state policies are known as Renewable Portfolio Standards. States that rely on non-renewable energy sources meet the standards by purchasing RECs.As a result of these state standards, renewable power companies created a new product, the REC. The renewable power companies sell their power to the grid in the usual way, because a given quantity of power does the same amount of work regardless of its source. And they sell the REC as a separate product which represents the environmental attributes of the power’s source. Each REC represents one MWh that has been generated by a renewable resource. The Environmental Resources Trust and Green-e certify projects to ensure that an REC is what it is supposed to be, and that it is not sold twice. Power companies that have to meet state standards buy most of the RECs. Carbon offset vendors also buy them to sell to you. Because RECs can only be bought once, they are “retired” by the vendors.Retiring RECs creates a voluntary price support for an industry that has to compete against “dirty” power companies which, ironically, receive much greater subsidies. Buying this type of offset helps finance the increased costs of green energy producers to make them financially viable. As the demand for RECs increases, renewable energy sources become more cost effective relative to “dirty” sources, a clear carbon benefit.Vendors’ websites display various projects for which they hold RECs, enabling you to choose what project you want to support. The vendor will purchase RECs from your selected project and retire them. Of the offset vendors that sell RECs, I favour Native Energy, because it provides an economic base for Native Americans in the Great Plains. Also, CleanAirPass (Canadian) buys RECs from other countries until they become available in Canada. Other organizations that sell RECs include Carbonfund.org, AtmosClear Climate Club (whose confusing website refers to RECs as ERCs ), Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Terrapass, and eBlueHorizons.2. Non-Governmental Renewable Energy Offsets:While some groups advocate RECs as a way to avoid double funding of a project, other groups claim that for a project to be additional (it wouldn’t exist but for your contribution), it must steer clear of these mechanisms. These groups verify their projects with third party reports.Climate Care in the UK funds its own projects. They have numerous small scale, innovative projects such as treadle pumps for irrigation in India and efficient lights for diesel-powered electricity users in the Marshall Islands. You can support Climate Care through Offsetters Carbon Neutral Society, a Vancouver-based organization.Climate Trust (carboncounter.org) was organized to meet Oregon laws for new power plants. Most of its offsets are efficiency improvements that support new technologies that are likely to prove useful elsewhere. They have some are international and/or forestry projects.3. Kyoto-Based Offsets:The Kyoto Protocol resulted in Certified Emissions Reductions (CERs), created by UN approved projects. Developing countries sell CERs to fund sustainable projects and industrial countries buy them to achieve emissions reductions for less money than they could at home. This sounds pretty good, except that the UN has a poor reputation for its failure to adequately ground-truth projects and its historical tendency to disrupt communities by favouring big projects over grassroots. Also, because the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries had their worst level of efficiency in the Kyoto baseline year of 1990, critics note that CERs originating in those countries often represent minimal improvements in efficiency.But if you want to buy Kyoto-based CERs anyway, they’re available at Global Cool in the UK for CN $45/ton, C02balance (UK, mostly reforestation), AgCert International (Ireland) or atmosfair (Germany).4. Voluntary Cap and Trade Markets:The Chicago Climate Exchange and Environmental Resources Trust have developed registries by which companies can set voluntary carbon emission reduction goals and then trade reductions with other companies. The Chicago Climate Exchange trades Chicago Climate Exchange Credits or CCECs. The Environmental Resources Trust trades RECs. Companies with inexpensive options for reducing their emissions sell their “extra” reductions to companies that would not otherwise meet their targets. Companies like Dupont, Ford and Motorola participate in these exchanges. The registries see themselves as a proving ground for future mandatory “cap and trade” programmes. The offsets have a corporate flavour, but the cap-and-trade system is one of the more politically viable solutions and worthy of some support.You can retire Chicago Climate Exchange Credits through Carbonfund.org, DriveNeutral.org, Carbonneutral.com, CleanAirPass (Canadian) and Terrapass.For the REALLY serious shopper, the consumer guide found at http://www.cleanair-coolplanet.org/ConsumersGuidetoCarbonOffsets.pdf gives a good discussion of the pros and cons of nine vendors. Page 39 lists all the offset organizations.I like the offsets that support sustainable energy sources. I’m lukewarm on the cap-and-trade markets. And I’m avoiding Kyoto-based, industrial ag methane recapture and reforestation offsets. I think the small scale, grassroots projects in less developed countries might do the most good, and I that subsidizing the North American renewable energy market by retiring RECs has a clear benefit.