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Buying a stairway to heaven?

Filed under: — david @ 29 May 2006

Just in the last year or so, a new type of scheme for reducing personal carbon emissions has appeared, the remarkably painless purchasing of “carbon offsets”. claims to neutralize a person’s CO2 footprint on the Earth for the low, low price of $99 per year, plus if you act now they will throw in an extra 5 tons for free! And you get a pen! Prices listed here range from $5-30 per ton of CO2 from a variety of similar organizations around the world. The average U.S. citizen is responsible for about 20 tons of CO2 release per year.

Compliance with Kyoto, a mere 5% reduction in carbon emissions, was forecast by Nordhaus [2001] to cost a few percent of GDP globally. The cost to stop emission completely and immediately may not even be calculable. promises zero net emissions, for a fraction of 1% of the average U.S. income. Can this possibly be real, or are we talking indulgences and snake oil?

The idea behind carbon offsets is built upon the foundation of carbon emissions trading established by the Kyoto Protocol, a scheme called cap and trade. Carbon emissions for industries are capped at some level by regulatory permits to emit CO2. If a company is able to cut its emissions below that level, it can sell its emission permits to another company. The cuts in emissions are thereby steered, by the invisible hand of the market, to the cheapest and most efficient means. Cap-and-trade has worked well for reduction of sulfur emissions in the U.S., that are responsible for acid rain. CO2 emission is intrinsically even better suited for cap-and-trade, because it is a truly global pollutant, so it matters not where the CO2 is emitted.

The carbon emissions market requires a certification process to verify any reduction in carbon emissions. and the other similar operations take donations from people like me and use the money to pay for renewable energy sources like solar cells or wind farms, that would not have been built otherwise. For these efforts, they receive credits for reduction in carbon emissions that are certified as valid, and therefore eligible for trade in the emissions market. Instead of trading that emission credit, “retires” it, so that it isn’t used to balance higher carbon emission from another source. The certification process from the emissions market has an unintended benefit of providing an independent way to verify the carbon impact from sending money to organizations like It’s a nifty idea.

The only piece of this picture that I don’t personally believe is carbon credits for land-use changes, reforestation. This was a U.S. idea in the Kyoto negotiations, back in the day when we were still pissing in the tent from the inside. It is true that forests hold more carbon per square meter than bare land does. However, estimating the exact amount of carbon in a forest is not so easy, because most of the carbon is in the soil, where its concentration is variable and laborious to measure. Could a forest that was cut and burned last year be claimed to be a carbon sink this year, as the forest grows back? What if the forest is cut again next year, will the carbon credits issued this year be chased down and revoked? To its credit, is quite up front about these sorts of concerns, and gives donors the option to invest their money in ways that are more transparent.

What I don’t understand is why entrepreneurs don’t invest in carbon reduction certificates, like does, but rather than retire the certificates, sell them in the carbon emissions market. The going rate for emissions permits in the market is on the order of $20-30 per ton, while claims to reduce carbon emissions for about $5 per ton. Seems like one could make a killing. I guess that’s the whole point of emissions trading. But the discrepancy in prices makes me a bit suspicious.

What about the discrepancy between the huge projected costs for nation-scale carbon cuts versus these cheap fixes for the emissions of an individual? I believe what we are looking at is a situation known as “low-hanging fruit”. If everyone in the U.S. decided to become carbon neutral, the price for doing it would rise, because the easy fixes would be used up. So the CO2 emission reductions achievable by purchasing of carbon offsets, at the low, low price of $99 per year, are almost by definition small relative to the overall scale of the problem. It would take more than $99 per American to prevent global warming; for that we will have to actually reduce our CO2 emissions. Carbon offsets cannot do it alone.

Carbon offsets are beneficial in the meantime, however, because they do cut carbon emissions, and the money stimulates development of alternative energy technologies. The bottom line is, despite my deep initial skepticism, I now see how carbon offsets could actually work as advertised, enabling an individual to live a carbon-neutral life, even in the United States. This is a terrific idea. Sign me up!

Nordhaus, W.D., Climate change – Global warming economics, Science, 294 (5545), 1283-1284, 2001.

157 Responses to “Buying a stairway to heaven?”

  1. 51
    teacher ocean says:

    Pore waters in deep sea sediments dissolve foram shells all the time, as we speak. Do you mean dissolving ALL the carbonates?

  2. 52
    Gar Lipow says:

    >I wonder how it is that the organizations you linked to can gain rights to carbon emissions at far less than the market price in actual markets. Something doesn;t add up. I suppose the idea is that if enough people participate then carbon markets will move financial markets, etc.

    Too many problems to go into. A random glimpse:

    A lot of “offsets” are produced by consultants. Example: You own a steel plant in a poor country that turns scrap metal into new steel. It is an old fashioned basic oxygen furnace (BOF), and it is finally completely worn out. A rebuild won’t do this time; it needs to be replaced. There is hydroelectric power in your area. You can save a lot of money by buying an Electric Arc Furnace (EAF), and using that for processing your scrap metal.

    But, you know, that EAF is a lot cleaner and greener than your old BOF. Isn’t there some way you can get paid for this? Why yes there is.

    Call in the local certified consultant from your local carbon market and pay him a nice fee. He will produce a study certifying that you could have gotten ten more years out of that old BOF, and that the only reason you are investing in a new EAF is carbon credits. Voila! The carbon market will examine the report, find it convincing, and a new annual producer of offsets is born – which a “Green” Rock Band can buy to justify burning petroleum in planes and buses.

    “Mommy, where do carbon offsets come from?”

    “Well you see honey when a polluter and a consultant love money very very much, they come together in a very special way to produce an extremely long piece of paper.”

  3. 53
    Hank Roberts says:

    Yes. It’s last year’s news.

    “… Orr and co-workers first calculated current carbonate ion content of the world’s oceans from data collected in two ocean surveys. They then used computer models to calculate how future CO2 emissions would change this carbonate concentration. The model predicted that colder waters in the Southern Ocean and the subarctic Pacific Ocean would be affected more seriously than tropical “waters. Worryingly, they found that quantities of aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate made by coral to build reefs, would fall below a critical level in Southern Ocean surface waters in as little as 50 years. By 2100, this deficiency could extend throughout the entire Southern Ocean and into the subarctic Pacific Ocean. This finding was unexpected: scientists had previously believed that adequate levels of calcium carbonate ions would persist in surface waters for hundreds of years.

    “The team went further; they also studied the effect of this acidification on individual marine organisms, in particular, the pteropod Clio pyramidata. Pteropods, a type of zooplankton, are winged snails, measuring several millimeters across, that swim through surface waters. Like coral, this species secretes aragonite to make its shell. The researchers compared the shells of pteropods that had swum in today’s â��non-corrosiveâ�� seawater with pteropods forced to swim in â��corrosiveâ�� seawater with a composition similar to the one expected in 2100. In the corrosive water, the shells of live pteropods started dissolving within 48 hours. This is only one exampleâ��acidification would also undoubtedly affect coral reefs, particularly those in cold waters. The result would be a disaster for the marine ecosystem, as pteropods make up the basic food for organisms ranging from zooplankton to whales, and coral skeletons provide an essential habitat for fish, crabs and sea urchins. Obviously, commercially important species, including North Pacific salmon, mackerel, herring and cod, would be among those affected….”

    J. Orr et al., �Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and its impact on calcifying organisms,� Nature. 437 (7059): 681-6. 2005.

  4. 54
    teacher ocean says:

    Yes, thank you. I had read that actually, very interesting. I was not sure I understood your previous post. :)

  5. 55
    t says:

    My utility gets their energy from both coal and wind. For $5 per month per 200kw, you can “buy” wind energy from a wind farm which substitutes for the energy which would otherwise come from the local coal plant. The $5 is to pay for the differential in costs between the wind farm and the coal plant, although I suspect the local utility or the power authority may be making money off this deal since they have not reduced the marginal price over the last 5 years even though wind costs have come down.

    In any case, this seems like a situation where you are really making a current offset, not just reducing future emissions.

    My understanding is that Terrapass is just making projects possible by providing the margin of funds required to make the project, for example,wind, a go. That is totally different than what my local utility does, as you are truly paying for the wind related energy you use.

    Is carbon fund similar to Terrapass or my local utility. Although I bought a Terrapass for my Prius, I feel more comfortable with the approach my local utility uses. Terrapss is so cheap because they are just paying marginal costs. But then someone else needs to actually sign up and buy the energy from those projects to make them truly useful.

    One concern I have is that these offset programs will cause people to directly emit more carbon than they otherwise would. Gore says he’s carbon neutral despite the thousands of miles he travels by air because he participates in an offset program. I hope he’s right, but I still feel uncomfortable.

    In any event, voluntary offsets don’t cut it. Our voluntary efforts will contribute trivially to the problem. After all, worldwide, there are 850 coal plants in the works. Who will be offsetting all that carbon?

  6. 56
    Eli Rabett says:

    #38 states that there is no need for a market where one can buy something directly. I guess that is why we don’t have a stock market, or a bond market or a vegtable market. Come, that is a bit more than naive and so easily refuted that one wonders about the reason for making the statement. Markets exist where buyers need to find sellers or visa versa. Those who make the market take their percentage.

    Another point is that Berkshire is so large that Buffet does not trade much on the market anymore, but rather buys companies in toto (read his annual report if you are interested in his strategy The take home is that very large organizations that can purchase all the emission rights from a particular source may not need a carbon market, but smaller ones will.

  7. 57
    converger says:

    There was an enormous amount of work done on this issue the first time around, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. If we are serious about stabilizing carbon emissions in the US, and you look at what it costs to do that, the answer is in the $30/ton range. Carbon sequestration, the thing that coal boosters everywhere are promising to do later if we let them build the coal plants now, probably costs more. $30/ton easily buys down any cost difference between fossil fuels or nukes and, say, large-scale wind development.

    As it happens, the Euro carbon market was running at about $30/ton until recently when it was discovered that a surplus of carbon emission credits had been issued, diluting the market.

  8. 58
    Ken Johnson says:

    Re #57:
    $30/ton? What’s the 1-sigma confidence on that? The IPCC TAR puts the cost in the range of $15 to $150/ton ( – p 25). As for benefits, the TAR simply states that “… quantitative estimates of the benefits of stabilization … of greenhouse gasses do not yet exist” (p 22). Not that anyone cares – GHG caps are always based on cost acceptability limits, never on environmental requirements. And the caps are more often than not premised on grossly over-inflated cost projections, so when the market finds out what the costs really are the carbon market collapses ( If you try tightening the caps, then a cold winter will come along, or there will be a disruption in natural gas supplies, and then carbon prices will hit the ceiling. You just can’t win. You can’t predict the future, and you can’t use cap and trade to control costs because cap and trade is fundamentally designed to control emissions – at any cost.

    The tradeoff to cost uncertainty and price instability is supposed to be that cap and trade guarantees “environmental certainty”, but it only does so in economists’ ivory-tower fantasy world. In the real world, most of the EU countries are set to miss their Kyoto commitments (, and as of 2005 Canada’s GHG emissions were already 32% above its Kyoto target – and rising ( So what is the point of cap and trade?

  9. 59
    Eachran says:

    Interesting thread and thanks to all. It may be that we are going to be stuck with a very high international “carbon levy” and those nations that dont play ball get penalised with import duties by others who do play ball, from their (the offenders) exports. Now, this may not prevent the “outlaws” dumping as much carbon on the rest of us as they like from their home market but it is a start and does to some extent deal with the natural concern that voters have, that to impose costs on locally produced goods and services, which others dont bear, reduces competitiveness. It also does encourage compliance because for example China, if it didn’t comply, would have less favoured status as an exporter of goods than it does now. After all countries sign up to the WTO rules and do in the main accept international arbitration to fix non-negotiable issues.

    To avoid the impression, I may give, that China will avoid its humanitarian duties we should remind ourselves that some thousands of years ago China went through this process with over exploitation of natural resources and corrected itself (cant remember the reference) : so China has already been there and done that and there is no reason to believe that it wont be wholeheartedly behind saving the planet.

    The international and domestic machinery already exists to administer this route and I dont know why we dont do it.

    I think that one has to start with a best guess of how high the “carbon levy” must be to start to reduce emissions quickly and then to have some mechanism for refunding the levy to the levied without plunging us all into a long lasting economic depression which will surely bring in its wake civil disorder; and, to create markets in levy debits/credits locally or regionally to ensure the levies are used economically efficiently.

    I dont see why some of the levy could not be used to pay for international organisations like the UN, it would save Mr Ted Turner having to write billion dollar cheques for a start.

  10. 60
    Alexander Harvey says:

    Both the differential rate and total amount of carbon uptake by terrestrial primary production should be of interest here, I think.

    Primary production is sensitive to atmospheric CO2 concentration. By extension so must be the subsequent release by respiration and decay.

    The significant rise in atmospheric CO2, that has occurred would suggest a significant increase in primary production as a proportion of the pre industrial total and it would only have taken a small proportional increase (the total primary production rate being far greater than anthrogenic emissions) for it to have exerted a stabilising effect in the short term unless were it not for our preference for crops and pasture over trees.

    So perhaps, changes in land use have acted to much diminish this effect.

    I have no information on how primary production has changed for either areas with continuity of land use or for disturbed areas. Can anyone help me?

    It would seem that this is precisely the sort of information that C02 traders/offsetters should have available when they make their proposals.

    On the face of it, unless one can show that we can construct a world that is, in effect, by all mechanisms, creating future fossil fuels and carbonate containing rocks, and at a similar rate to which they are being reduced to CO2 and released into the atmosphere then it is not solving the problem.

    What is the most productive way of producing future fossil fuels? Is it the peat production of bogs? How much could such production amount to?

    Lastly, what is the most desirable (or perhaps utilitarian) level of atmospheric CO2? One way or another we are embarking on a knowing manipulation of climatic and primary production conditions. Different levels might have different winners and losers.

    Polite suggestions and pointers will be welcomed.

  11. 61
    Hank Roberts says:

    59 re China — I think you should try hard to find that reference. The people I know who’ve worked on food production improvement in China say it’s in horrible shape because of thousands of years of shortsighted overuse, with no scientists to figure out where they were going in time to change. Perhaps some emperor did something different, but it doesn’t seem to have stuck as a policy. I’d like to know your source’s sources.

  12. 62
    Jason West says:

    I used to offset my personal CO2 emissions – and was surprised and delighted by how cheap it was.

    Your comments suggest that there is a disconnect between how cheap is, and how expensive it is to reduce CO2 in the market. But that is not really inconsistent. CO2 is ~$25 per ton in the European market, because they are acting under a binding commitment and have to reduce a certain amount. In the Chicago Climate Exchange, CO2 is much cheaper, ~$3 per ton. That is because there is no binding commitment in the USA, and so only the very cheapest options are used.

    This is illustrated nicely in a paper by David Victor et al (Science, 2005, 309:1820).

    This also suggests that we should not expect to get our whole CO2 reduced at the price in the US market now. Prices will rise as we reduce more, but hopefully, seeing that the market is active will encourage companies to innovate more.

    You also questioned whether the reductions under are the same as under the Kyoto Protocol. I guess the key question is if they are verified to the same standard. Let’s ask carbonfund to comment on this!

    I think a lot of people should be encouraged to use People are now spending a lot of effort and money to find ways to reduce their personal CO2 emissions. makes it easy and cheap, letting our money be used to reduce more emissions.

  13. 63
  14. 64
    John says:

    FOr those that are trying to claim humans account for 30% of CO2 here is a link.

    The IPCC gives the figures for natural and human perturbation of global carbon cycle (the numbers are in Petagrams of carbon. 1 Pg = 1 Gigaton, denoted Gt. 1 Gt = 1 Pg = 109 metric ton). Human perturbation = ~5.2GtC emissions and the natural cycle roughly 210GtC emission. Humans collectively account for 5.2/210 or a shade short of 2.5% and not the 30% cited above.

    [Response: You are confusing two different things. One is the gross fluxes into and out of the atmosphere, and the second is the net flux into and out of the atmosphere. The terresstrial and oceanic fluxes are large, but also largely balanced (what goes in pretty much comes out). The extra fluxes we are putting in have accumulated in the system so that CO2 levels are 30% higher than previously. It’s like a big bathtub with a lot of water coming in, and a lot of water leaving down the drain. To a good approximation what was coming in before was matched to what was leaving and the level in the bath tub was steady. Now we are adding in more water and the amount going down the drain hasn’t increased to match – hence the level has risen about 30%. The ratio of our additions to the ‘natural’ fluxes is completely irrelevant. All that matters is how much the sink increases – and it hasn’t increased enough to soak up all the extra stuff we are putting in. – gavin]

  15. 65
    John says:

    Instead of arguing about computer models CO2 percentages and so forth I ask the following. Let’s say all the following are proven to be scientific fact.
    1) Man made warming is real
    2) All the disaster predictions are real
    3) If we give up fosil fuels we can stop it.
    Does ANYONE believe that people would give up driving, air conditioning, creature comforts, etc to do this? Its not going to happen.

    On the other side I ask the doomsaylers a question. For argument sake lets say the following is proven.
    1) Man is warming the planet
    2) This warming is offsetting a natural ice age.
    Are the folks here then willing to add more CO2? Or is the natural cycle more important?

    My point is that Teddy is against windfarms near his beach home. When he decides to suffer then maybe the rest of us will consider it.

  16. 66
    Alexander Harvey says:

    I simply can not understand the $/ton prices for any of these schemes.

    If they can produce carbon at those sorts of costs then I want to buy it as it seems to be the cheapest fuel around.

    If someone can sell me sustainable carbon at $5.5/tonne or $30/tonne, I want to speak to them urgently.

    So that is not what is going on.

    So what is?


    I have had a look at some of the offerings and one that is not so vague as to be useless is the following.

    If you take alook at the “Trees for Life” offering and, at its basis, is the proposal:

    “… to plant the appropriate number of trees to absorb (over the lifetime of each tree} the CO2 produced …”.

    If the life time is 100 years (I could not find a figure on their website) and you buy the approprite amount of trees/per year to eventually (100 years) become carbon neutral then after:

    1 year you have but back 1% of usage so far
    2 years 1.5% of usage so far
    3 years 2%
    4 years 2.5%

    99 years 50%
    100 years 50.5%

    (at this point the trees are reaching maturity and you will simply be replacing the oldest trees)

    101 years 50.99%
    110 years 55%
    150 years 67%
    200 years 75.25%
    400 years 87.63%

    Basically you would never get there unless you’re cold, dead and sequestrated and the project has to continued without you.

    What you really need is to buy 100 times your annual tree requirement up front to cover your ongoing emissions. As this would be rather a lot of cash then perhaps you could take out a 100 year lease on your total tree requirement and could leave the residue to your estate when you die, or more simply rent it for each year that you live and burn carbon.

    The figure suggested (in chart) for “Tree for Life” is $20/tonne offset.

    So you would need a mortgage on a total sum of 100*$20 = $2000/(tonne/year) of offsets which with a borrowing rate of 5% that would be an ongoing $100/(tonne/year) plus capital repayments.

    This is five times the headline figure of $20 and would be purely the result of interest rates being 5 times tree growth rates (1% per year assuming 100 years).

    Without capital repayments one would be renting which is actually more appropriate. The cost of renting is just the $100/(tonne/year) plus a profit for the owner in the real world.

    Using’s “Zero Carbon” rate of 24tons/year of offsets and neglecting the difference between tons and tonnes.

    Then a rental of $2,400 per year would be the cost to be actually carbon neutral with “Trees for Life”.

    Which is a lot.


    At the other end, where do they get land that you can rent for 100 years for $10/tree. Again based on 100 years this is 10c/tree-year. (The figure they give is UK£5/tree which is slightly less).

    Where can one find land at those sort of rates?

    Well in the case of “Tree for Life” it would appear to be from the UK Forestry Commission who own some/most/all of the land in question.

    I can not believe that “Trees for Life” are paying anything approaching a commercial rate for the land (perhaps nothing at all). Furthermore much of the work is carried out by volunteers and almost certainly would be carried out anyway as part of a Forestry Commission plan to return the forest to a more natural habitat.

    These are good people do great work but I can not see that it amounts to additional carbon reduction.

    If anyone knows better please tell.

    I can not calculate a figure for what it would cost to be carbon neutral but I would suggest that $200/tonne would be a lot closer the mark.

  17. 67

    Re: #65

    Premise #3 in your first argument is a false dichotomy. Dropping fossil fuels completely is not necessary, nor would it deny us the benefits of a high energy economy. There are many alternatives, including finding some efficient mechanism for rebinding the carbon in the atmosphere back into usable hydrocarbons, which if possible, would not even require much in the way of infrastructure changes.

    Premise #2 in your second argument simply false: we are in an interglacial period now.

    I agree that it is offensive that certain rich folks are unwilling to pay the costs of the society which they so disproportionately benefit from, but I believe that you are slandering the Senator from Massachusetts. While he may have other things to answer for, the controversy you refer to was on Cape Cod and Senator Kennedy lives on Martha’s Vineyard.

  18. 68
    Eric Carlson says:

    #62, thanks for the comments and support. Each verification model is slightly different, which is not to say better or worse. Kyoto applies to countries, while CCX applies to opt-in businesses. Both standards are rigorous. Green-e is slightly different than ERT. They all measure a metric ton of CO2 reductions.

    The price difference has more to do with the rigidity of the market. Kyoto is mandatory and applies to all emissions in about 60 countries. No one can opt out. CCX is voluntary, and one might expect it to initially attract net sellers, not buyers of CO2. Both are highly certified and their reductions real.

    Regarding long term prices of CO2 reductions, we disagree that they will go up. While efficiency gains will likely max-out, renewable energy, already less than $5.50 per metric ton of CO2, will only go down in price as supply continues to grow by 20-25% a year. Short term disruptions aside, long term increases in the cost of CO2 reductions via efficiency will compete with the dropping cost of CO2 reductions via renewables.

  19. 69
    Gar Lipow says:

    Hi folks. There are some people out there who have done a lot of work on this issue. Here are some links

    “Marketing and Making Carbon Dumps” (2005)

    “The Sky is not the Limit” (2003)

    “To Keep the Oil Flowing” (draft, 2005)

    “Low-Hanging Fruit Always Rots First”, in Trouble in the Air (2005)

    “The Carbon Shop: Planting New Problems” (1999)

    “The Carbon Bomb: Climate Change and the Fate of the Northern Boreal Forests”

    These are not of course dispassionate scientific analysis. But they are extremely careful work with a high ratio of analysis and facts to rhetoric. I highly recommend them. Many of the authors are economists; some are scientists. I would highly recommend inviting one of them to make a guest post on offsets, and on carbon trading in general – perhaps Jutta Kill.

  20. 70
    Hank Roberts says:

    67 > some efficient mechanism for rebinding the carbon in the
    > atmosphere back into usable hydrocarbons

    That would be a perpetual motion machine — to accomplish this as fast as the CO2 is being produced, which is the problem.

    That would require more energy than obtained by burning the fossil fuel, to reverse the combustion.

    If you allow geologic time to accomplish it, that doesn’t help with the immediate short term problem at all.

  21. 71
    Grant says:

    Re: #65

    > Does ANYONE believe that people would give up driving, air conditioning, creature comforts, etc to do this? Its not going to happen.

    Does ANYONE believe that people would give up their comfort, their time, and their hard-earned money just to help victims of a hurricane a thousand miles away?

    Does ANYONE believe that protesters would risk beatings, arrest, incarceration, loss of liberty and perhaps even life, just to help people of another race achieve justice?

    Does ANYONE believe that a soldier would willingly jump on a grenade, to his own near-certain death, just to save others?

    Does ANYONE believe that a man would endure crucifixion just to show the world an example of the power of love?

  22. 72
    Dan Hughes says:

    Senator Kennedy’s opposition to the Cape Wind project has been widely reported. Google “Cape Wind” with Kennedy.

  23. 73
    Hank Roberts says:

    65 — John, you’re asking the exact questions from the article linked in #63, are you using that author as your source for information

  24. 74
    John says:

    Re #67
    I asked for an existing proven technology. Not something that could be, might be, etc. Your solution does not exist today so my question is valid.

    As for Sen Kennedy he voted against it and there are numerous reports where his contributors that live there told him to vote no or they would donate elsewhere. Bottom line is he decided his personal gain was more important then the environment. So why can’t I?

    My second questionhad two criteria that we assumed for the questions sake to be true. Please either answer it trutfully or ignore the question.

  25. 75
    John says:

    Re #69
    There are always examples of INDIVIDUALS giving up their life to save others. We are not talking about a few people but ALL people. In order to make it work everyone must give up a substantial amount. This will not happen.

    As simple proof how many seniors were willing to give up a portion of their social security (tking away some or all SS money when income goes above $75,000). The answer was so little thatthe congress dropped it like a hot potatoe.

    If you or others WANT to pay the tax and voluntarily do so then more power to you. Just don’t force me to do it, and I’m sure a mojority of Americans would also say no to this type of wealth transfer and tax increase.

  26. 76
    John says:

    Here is another point why this tax and wealth transfer won’t work. Say a US corporation makes a certain widget. Now that corporation has to pay a CO2 tax. There are two choices.

    1) Raise the price of the widget and depending on price elasticity of the product people still buy it in the same quantity. This results in ZERO CO2 reductions and is ONLY a wealth transfer system.

    2) Manufacture the widget in India where the CO2 tax does not apply. This also results in ZERO CO2 reductions since the consuption and energy requirments are still the same. This is a different type of transfer system.

    Bottom line is that in neither case does it SOLVE the stated problem of CO2 reductions due to human activity.

    The only way to reduce demand of the widget is to reduce the population that wants the widget. [edited]

    [Response: The rhetoric level on this post is getting out of control. Repeating points made before, unconstructive strawmen and comments that generate more heat than light will be screened out. In response to your actual point, there is plenty of elasticity in carbon dioxide generation – BP is a good example, they reduced their company-wide emissions by 10% below 1990 levels at no net cost (in fact they saved money) by implementing an internal cap-and-trade system. -gavin]

  27. 77
    Brian Gordon says:

    Currently, the US transfers a very large amount of wealth from taxpayers to corporations, including farmers. (In the form of direct subsidies, tax breaks, R&D credits, “defense” spending, etc., etc.) This is a distortion of the market; combined with undue corporate influence on the political system, it means that a free market does not really exist in the US. Really, you have corporate welfarism, or something like it. [I’m Canadian, and ‘capitalism’ operates similarly here.]

    This means that you, via the US government, are subsidising much of the current fossil fuel use. It is not in your short-term interest, or the government’s, or the corporations’, or the market’s, to change this, because the system has been jiggered to ignore/punish/reward certain things. Our “leaders” will react to global warming only when people – you – insist upon it.

    So, should people be forced to conserve or use alternatives? I prefer no, but the longer we wait, the more likely we (globally, not just Americans) will be _forced_ to go to centrally planned economies. We will no longer be able to allow people to choose their lifestyles.

    All of which leads me to wonder if the US government would actually prefer this arrangement – what government does not covet more power? And what better way to acheive that than by inducing a permanent state of climate crisis? Mother Nature/God makes an even better enemy than humans.

  28. 78
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    re: 72

    You’ve skipped a possibility: the manufacturer figures out another way to make his product that involves less carbon based fuel.

  29. 79
    John says:

    73 – Hank, no I’ve been asking this of people for a few years now.

    Response to #76.
    Gavin, The BP expample you cite was from my option #2. They did internal trading within various business units located in different countries. By finding countires that had high levels of CO2 in 1990 they could state they reduced CO2 but not actually reduce it. Russia joined Kyoto based on this type of scenario.

    This is just begging for an Enron type scheme. I set up a corporation in Inda/China/Russia that has high 1990 levles of CO2 allotment. I then move/sell my current levels to these shell companies and funnel the dollars back to the parnet corporation while claiming tax and other credits. I’ve worked in the financial industry and these type of derivitives are common. To actually trust a corporation when they claim they reduce CO2 without reducing actual energy consuption should raise red flags everywhere.

    [Response: Not so. As far as I can tell, BP reduced emissions overall – not just in selected countries. Some examples are given here: – Emissions reductions came form reductions of flaring, efficiency improvements and sequestration. Unless you have some evidence to the contrary my point stands. -gavin]

  30. 80
    Mark A. York says:

    As I could have predicted Taranto rejected my comment in favor of three Gore-bashers.

    The following letter has been submitted via the OpinionJournal article response feature.
    Contents of response as follows:

    Name: Mark A. York
    City/State: Sunland, CA
    Date: Wed, May 31st, 2006

    Re: Warmed Over

    “Here’s a test. What if science showed conclusively that global warming is produced by natural forces, with all the same theorized ill effects for humanity, but that human action could forestall natural change? Or what if man-made warming were real, but offsetting the arrival of a natural ice age? Would Mr. Gore tell us meekly to submit to whatever nature metes out because it’s “natural”?”

    Well it may feel good to Mr. jenkins, but alas it is this statement that is fiction, not what Mr. Gore has portrayed. It shows the opposite. It’s not natural. The appeal to appropriate authority such as NASA trumps what an unpublished thinktank shill says. Yes Mr. Jenkins, the real world is tough and fake ideas get called what they earn. The warm world is already haunting us, yes even through blind eyes like those of this editorial board who keep repeating falsehoods in hope of obsfucating the Inconveinient Truth. Now do you get the title?


  31. 81
    Steve Latham says:

    Regarding #64 and Gavin’s response (and #46),

    The bathtub analogy is better because the higher the buildup of excess water in the tub, the faster the water is shot through the drain, thereby ameliorating the problem to some degree (right?), but the idea got me wondering about other small percentage changes that would have large cumulative effects. For example, what would be the difference if the Sun’s output increased by 2.5% over its current output. Or, what if the Earth was 2.5% closer or further from the Sun. The calculations probably aren’t that difficult to do, and I think they’d show that 2.5% is actually quite a big deal. I was thinking about using mortgages as an analog, but I confused myself so that’s probably not an effective vehicle for explaining the issue.

  32. 82
    Grant says:

    Re: #75

    > There are always examples of INDIVIDUALS giving up their life to save others. We are not talking about a few people but ALL people. In order to make it work everyone must give up a substantial amount. This will not happen.

    It was INDIVIDUALS who made the decision to undertake sacrifice, in order to help victims of hurricane Katrina: Millions of INDIVIDUALS, not just in the U.S. but around the world. And their sacrifice made a difference; some would say that the efforts of those INDIVIDUALS were more effective than the efforts of the government’s FEMA.

    It was INDIVIDUALS who brought about a revolution in civil rights in the U.S. They were not just black INDIVIDUALS; there were white, brown, yellow, all races, whose INDIVIDUAL efforts made a HUGE difference. Not EVERYONE helped; many hindered. But in the end, the sacrifice of INDIVIDUALS changed the world.

    As for crucifixion, I was only thinking of one INDIVIDUAL. Do you think his sacrifice was in vain? Did he have no effect on the world?

    The efforts of INDIVIDUALS really can change the world. But don’t worry; we won’t expect you to make any sacrifices.

  33. 83
    John says:

    Gavin or other experts.

    In all sincerity I would really like to ask just one question. As you might have guessed I’m a skeptic but not from the global warming prespective. I’m skeptical about what if anything can really be done.

    CO2 increases are the ressult of energy consumption or the requirement for a higher standard of living (often going hand in hand). The world has been increasing its energy demand and will continue to do so. Conservation can only slow this increase (never decrease it) since the increase is due to more people and improving standards of living. Those who claim carbon neutral or a reduction in their carbon footprint are misleading since their energy consuption hasn’t been reduced, only redirected. If their energy has not been reduced then there is no real reduction in CO2 except for the minute amounts due to some minor switching to solar or something like that. Therefore, my question is simply this:

    What technology is avaiable today or alternative energy source is avaiable that will meet the current and future energy demands of the world (say for the next 25 years) while not costing substantially more then we pay today?

    I don’t know of any or know of a combination that exists today that will also reduce CO2 emmissions. The one possibility is nuclear power but even that isn’t a real solution given what is going on with Iran and the other issues surronding its usage.

    So can we provide the energy that is needed without heavy CO2 emissions? If this question can be answered truthfully without wealth transfers to other countries then I think most people would then back it. And isn’t this the real goal?

  34. 84
    Hank Roberts says:

    John, reread #53 please, and the full paper linked there.

    How can you possibly not take that seriously? It’s actual lab work, it’s simple enough to understand clearly, and it’s –barely — avoidable on a global scale with quick reduction in CO2.

    [rhetorical flourish excised]

  35. 85
    John says:

    Ref # 82
    Dear Grant, [edited – stick to the point]

    My point is that in the US this tax won’t fly till you get a substantial number of people who are willing to support it. And to do that you have to make a case for it and not just try scare tactics. People won’t buy it if its going to hurt unless there is proof that it is necessary. It comes down to a simple cost benefit anaylsis that each individual must make but can only happen if a substantial majority actually agrees with it. Due to the political setup a simple majority won’t work since a small number of politicians can block almost anything.

  36. 86
    John says:


    This is a quote from the BP site you linked:

    “Greenhouse gas emissions from our operations in 2004 were equivalent to 81.7 million tonnes CO2. Since 2001 approximately half of our total underlying emissions growth (around 7 million tonnes) has been offset by sustainable efficiency projects.”

    By their own admission half of their INCREASE in CO2 was offset. But this still means that their TOTAL CO2 release still increased. This is the point I’m making. We are not REDUCING CO2 but only reducing the increase in CO2. While this is good it doesn’t solve the problem.

    [Response: Again, it’s just not so: shows that they acheived an absolute reduction of 10% below 1990 levels by 2001. However, while I do agree that this is not enough – claiming that no progress can be made is simply erroneous. – gavin

  37. 87
    Ken Goldstein says:

    I’m not quite sure I get the idea of donating money to build wind-farms and solar panels, then retiring the credits you get. Aside from the verification advantage, why not just build them and not apply for the credits? Wouldn’t that have the same effect? If I understand this correctly, credits can be produced and are not taken from a fixed pool. Therefore, if you get credits (and trade them) for doing something other than decreasing emissions already being produced; you will increase supply of those credits, lowering their market value thereby making it cheaper for someone else to emit CO2 over their cap. That should have a net effect of increasing CO2 emissions rather than decreasing them. Wouldn’t it make more sense to buy somebody else’s emission credits and then retire them? That way, for every ton bought, somebody else won’t be able to buy the rights to emit that much. Also, by increasing demand (by adding to the pool of buyers) and decreasing supply (by taking them off the market), that will raise the price of emission credits making it that more expensive to buy the rights to exceed the cap while making it more profitable to reduce CO2 emissions from already existing sources.

    I get the feeling there is something I don’t quite understand about this. Maybe because I’m assuming that people who know far more about economics than I do came up with this plan. Could somebody explain what I’m missing? Don’t get me wrong, donating money to build carbon neutral sources of energy is a great thing, it’s just the emission credit thing I don’t get.

  38. 88
    Ken Johnson says:

    Re #68:
    “Kyoto is mandatory … No one can opt out.” (??) Would you please climb down out of your ivory tower and explain how, in particular, Kyoto will enforce Canada’s commitment, when Canada’s emissions are already about 35% over its Kyoto target and the government has made it clear that it has no intention of complying with its Kyoto obligation?

    “Regarding long term prices of CO2 reductions, we disagree that they will go up.” Of course, you can always keep prices as low as you like by making the cap sufficiently high. But would you please look into your crystal ball and tell us how much it will cost, for example, for California to achieve Governor Schwarzenegger’s goal of 80% GHG reduction from 1990 levels by 2050 (which is what the climate scientists tell us is required)?

    Re #76:
    “Raise the price of the widget and depending on price elasticity of the product people still buy it in the same quantity.” There is an important point that your analysis is missing. The overall demand for widgets may be inelastic, but the cross-price elasticity between low-emission and high-emission widgets can nevertheless be very high. For example, suppose you apply a CO2 tax at the following level for “green” (low-emission) and “brown” (high-emission) widgets:
    green widget CO2 tax: $90
    brown widget CO2 tax: $110
    The tax has two effects: It tends to induce an overall consumption reduction by making all widgets more expensive, and it also motivates consumers to favor green widgets over brown widgets by increasing their price spread. The two effects can be disaggregated by separating the tax into two components: a straight consumption tax, and a refunded CO2 tax, which is the balance between the CO2 tax and the consumption tax. The consumption tax is
    green widget consumption tax: $100
    brown widget consumption tax: $100
    Assuming a 50% market split between green and brown widgets, the refunded CO2 tax is
    green widget refunded CO2 tax: -$10 (negative – a profit)
    brown widget refunded CO2 tax: +$10
    The consumption tax has little effect because demand is inelastic, so it can be dispensed with. The refund makes it politically feasible to raise the tax rate by an order of magnitude, e.g.
    green widget refunded CO2 tax: -$100 (negative – a profit)
    brown widget refunded CO2 tax: +$100
    So the refund basically makes the policy less consumption-restrictive but more technology-forcing. (An interesting real-world application of this policy approach is discussed in the following article: .)

  39. 89
    Mark Shapiro says:

    Re 83: John –

    People like Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute ( ) have been pointing out ways to reduce energy use while simultaneously growing the economy since 1982 or so. Some commenters on this site, myself included, have lowered their own energy costs using RMI’s recommendations. RMI, which is free-market oriented, builds on its technical expertise to recommends ways for governments to incent all consumers to save. Ending subsidies for energy consumption would be a good start.

    Gavin has cited the BP example – – BP hit its own internal Kyoto-level targets well ahead of schedule at a negative cost (i.e.they made money). There are others.

    RMI’s latest book, “Winning the Oil Endgame” shows exactly how to do it in the transportation sector. It is available free online, so there is not much reason not to give it a look.

    (Though I’m clearly a big booster of RMI, I’m actually not affiliated with them! Just a fan for decades.)

  40. 90
    Jim Dukelow says:

    Re Comments #3, #11, #17, #31, #39, #40, #41

    In various ways, some of these comments about nuclear power illustrate the danger of simply accepting the conventional wisdom about topics outside your areas of expertise.

    David writes,”I must point out that Chernobyl had the capacity to make a large swath of the Ukrainian breadbasket, and the city of Kiev, uninhabitale essentially forever, if the core meltdown had reached the water table. Reactors don’t explode like nuclear bombs, but breeder reactors make it a lot easier for people to make bombs.”

    This is just silly and bespeaks ignorance of both the Chernobyl accident and hydrology. Chernobyl, close to a worst case accident in many respects, contaminated large areas — heavily near the reactor, less so further away, and with a patchiness due to changing wind patterns during the 10-day course of the accident. The only established safety and health consequences are the 35 or so plant employees and initial responders that died within a few weeks of radiation sickness and the hundreds of children in the Ukraine and Belarus who developed thyroid cancer, with 10 or so deaths. The Soviets did not keep good enough records of the several hundred thousand “liquidators” who cleaned up the site after the accident, so we’ll never know the impact of their lower exposures, although Jimmy Carter is anecdotal evidence that it is possible to live a full, healthy life after a minute or so in a high, radiation zone. A number of elderly have moved back into their homes in the exclusion zone, which has also become a de facto wildlife refuge, with the benefits to wildlife of few humans around clearly outweighing the costs of the radiation contamination. If contamination from the accident had reached groundwater, it would have flowed more or less directly to the nearby Pripyat River and into the reservoir just downstream, with most of the radionuclides becoming bound to soil and lake sediment (this is something we have a lot of experience with at the Hanford Site and elsewhere). There is literally zero probability that Kiev or a “large swath of the Ukrainian breadbasket would have become uninhabitable essentially forever” The Chernobyl accident was inadvertently an experimental test of the reality of the hypothetical China Syndrome, since much of the uranium, zirconium, and steel in the reactor core melted and flowed into the basement rooms and corridors of the reactor building where it solidified and remains to this day. None reached groundwater.

    Finally, David and Edward Greisch are wrong about low-enriched uranium-fueled reactors being unable to explode like a bomb, since Chernobyl did precisely that, although much less efficiently than devices engineered to be bombs. Nuclear reactors are easily controllable because a small fraction of the neutrons emitted in a fission event are not emitted immediately, but rather a few seconds or a few minutes later from fission products. This means that a reactor that is delayed-neutron-supercritical will double in power every minute or so. A reactor that becomes prompt-neutron-supercritical, as Chernobyl did, will double in power every thousanth of a second. Chernobyl suffered two prompt supercritical spikes, one that took the reactor to roughly 530 times normal full power in a second and back down to a few times normal power in the next second and another spike to about 300 times normal power. Those spikes blew the core apart and started the graphite fire that burned for 10 days or so.

    Re Martin’s comment that nuclear power is dangerous: So is every other source of energy humans use. Every careful study of the full life cycle impact of energy sources on public health, safety, and the environment shows nuclear power to have less impact than others (both renewable and non-renewable) and significantly less impact than coal and oil.

    The downloadable book by Max Carbon that Dan Hughes recommends (Comment 11) looks like a good elaboration of some of the assertions in this comment.

    Contrary to Mark Shapiro’s comment, nuclear power is currently less expensive than wind and less subsidized than wind, biomass ethanol and biodiesel, and solar power. Like Mark, I think increased efficiency is worth doing.

    Damien’s Comment 41 is mostly on the mark, but reactor-grade plutonium (with Pu-240 concentrations above 6%) can be used to make nuclear bombs. They will be less efficient and more likely to “fizzle” than weapons made with weapons-grade plutonium, but “fizzle” is a relative term here — you wouldn’t want to be within a mile or two of one when it exploded. A lot of interesting information about several technical issues related to nuclear proliferation can be found in a white paper at

    Jim Dukelow

  41. 91
    Gareth says:

    If there’s one lesson I take from all this, it’s that I should plant more trees. Diamond (in Collapse,) is very good on this point, particularly with respect to Japan. I shall set aside chunks of my small farm, plant native trees, and watch the bush regenerate. And I’ll try and make my planting equate to my CO2 outputs. We can then adopt a lower energy profile as the opportunities arise (solar, wind, LED lighting, electric or hybrid vehicles) and as capital becomes available. City dwellers can do some of the above, and buy tree planting somewhere else.

    So here’s a question: a major global reforestation project would be a relatively easy political “sell”. Trees are “good” irrespective of political views. How big would such a project have to be to have a measurable impact on atmospheric CO2?

  42. 92

    Re: #70.

    Of course energy input is required. All I described was a large scale biodiesel variant, and the energy from that can come from the sun (insolation provides several orders of magnitude above our current energy usage). Sorry if that was not clear.

    Re: #74.

    The example I gave was hypothetical, but there are plenty of well-known reasonable alternatives that are available right now. Nuclear, biodiesel, solar, wind, geothermal, ocean thermocline, solar-thermal, hydrolectric and so forth are all pretty well proven and can scale where most appropriate. They can all be used to generate liquid fuels (e.g. methanol) for use in much of the existing infrastructure and incidentally sequestering carbon. And if they are not quite ready, why not work on making them so proactively instead of waiting for some sort of disaster to spur development?

    I appear to be mistaken about Senator Kennedy. I admit I don’t follow the gossip columns much ;-) Still, I wouldn’t model my public morals on him if I were you. Not that anyone has suggested that you should…

    As I now understand your second argument, the question appears to be “Should we interfere with ‘natural’ cycles for our own benefit/preservation?” I would answer that it depends if the cure is worse than the disease. In starker terms: how many would die for each policy option? Still, the question as phrased again sets up a false dichotomy: Do nothing (and freeze) or keep going as usual (and probably overshoot)? Other options might include finding some sort of optimum between these extremes to maximise survival of the greatest number.

  43. 93
    Hank Roberts says:

    70, 92

    “Solar insolation provides ….”

    No, in fact that’s a misunderstanding — where did you read it?

    Sunlight doesn’t provide energy to people greater than fossil fuel use per year.

    You are thinking of the total measured insolation in watts per square meter, I imagine?

    Nature has no means for collecting that amount of useful energy from sunshine whether for plankton or biodiesel.

    Key words are ‘overshoot’ and ‘primary productivity’ — there are no biological systems capable of turning the CO2 produced in one year of human use into a comparable amount of say biodiesel. Nowhere near.

    These references may help:

  44. 94
    Hank Roberts says:

    Quick self-correction:
    The first link I posted just above takes you to the primary article but has quite a few hits below that aren’t relevant; the “cited by” link in the first hit takes you to these references that refer back to the primary article on primary productivity and overshoot.

    There are many other references — solar energy simply can’t undo burning of fossil fuels at the rate per year we’re doing it, not even close.

  45. 95
    Hank Roberts says:

    Good graphics here:

  46. 96
    Hank Roberts says:

    Update and Excel data file here:

  47. 97
    Gar Lipow says:

    Re 96:

    With a fivefold efficiency improvement compared to the U.S. (which is much less than fivefold compared to the EU or Japan) we could easily supply the world with a combination of wind, high temp solar thermal for electricity, low temp solar thermal for space and water heating, small amounts of geothermal and hydroelectricity to lower costs, and small sustainable amounts of biomass – mostly from urban waste and from waste straw and stover from growing grain. (Waste straw is sustainable because you can’t add it all to the soil anyway if you do conservation tillage – it robs nitrogen and causes compaction.)

  48. 98
    Mark A. York says:

    This must be the day for it:

    It’s au natural man. The new wingnut defense.

  49. 99
    S Molnar says:

    I have no insight into the BP situation, but my natural distrust of oil company executives (even those who are peers) combined with my recollection of the state of oil demand at the end of 2001 (wasn’t there some sort of recession that hit right at that time?) makes me suspicious about the real reasons for the 10 percent emissions reduction. I don’t question the theoretical possibilities, just this particular example. We all know how to fabricate a trend by careful selection of the beginning and end dates.

  50. 100
    Damien says:

    One thing I haven’t been able to find is the feasibility of industrial extraction and fixation of CO2. What could we do now, and what are the limits on what we can do? Why are plants so apparently poor at it — is it hard for them to extract CO2 at 300 ppm levels, and is that a hard limit or one we could beat with access to different temperatures?

    Hank: the message I get from your energybulletin link is that we’re burning 6e12 kg of carbon, and net primary productivity is 6e13 kg, of which we’re using 3e12 kg (a lot lower than I expected). As the author says, it’s not obvious some of the NPP couldn’t be diverted into sequestration.

    My technophile side would note we have large sun-drenched deserts in the world, crying out for mass irrigation by nuclear-powered (or solar-powered) desalination plants, assuming industrial direct extraction isn’t worthwhile.