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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”. Carbonfund.org 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. Carbonfund.org 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. Carbonfund.org 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, carbonfund.org “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 carbonfund.org. 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, Carbonfund.org 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 carbonfund.org 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 carbonfund.org 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. 151
    garhane says:

    It is said that the generals are always ready to fight the last war. One has to wonder whether they ever have a feeling, as they review plans to purchase more weapons of the kind they have been using, that they have been this way before. This non specialist “feels” that it does not make any sense at all to think that the monetary and competitive expression of current commercial society has the remotest possibility if dealing usefully with global warming. I wonder is this is what the great scientist was pondering when he made his remark about the fallacy of dealing with any large problem within the operations that produced it. If emissions :”trading” is all that the powers that be can come up with, then the fact is they have set their faces against coming to any understanding at all of the problem. It is not a good sign

  2. 152
    mankoff says:

    An Inconvenient Truth has just announced that it will buy carbon credits in order to become The First Carbon-neutral Documentary

  3. 153
    Gar Lipow says:

    152: Oy.

  4. 154
    Michael Jankowski says:

    FWIW, scathing article about BP and Shell, in response to previous statements about BP. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1796036,00.html

  5. 155
    pat neuman says:

    Surprising to me, there was minimal discussion on biofuels at this important
    meeting last evening in St. Paul, MN on global warming, My summary follows.

    Summary of pubic meeting at Hamline University in St. Paul, June 21, 2006

    Looking for Leadership – A Global Warming Colloquium

    In his 10 minute presentation last evening St. Paul MN Mayor Chris
    Coleman told the audience of a couple hundred about a statement which
    he remembered from years ago that was made to elected officials: “You
    have a duty to know more because you were elected to represent us.”

    Others on the panel of speakers included: polar explorer and educator Mr.
    Will Steger, Xcel Energy CEO and President of Xcel Cynthia Lesher,
    Fresh Energy Science Policy Director J Drake Hamilton.

    Coleman said he signed the Mayor’s Global Climate Change Agreement in
    Feb. 2006.

    Steger talked about his efforts in using the Internet for public
    education about global warming for K-12 students.

    Lesher said Xcel Energy believes that global warming is clearly
    taking place and that Xcel has been a leader on conservation efforts in the
    power industry by offering incentives and rebates to consumers who
    conserve energy.

    Hamilton spoke out on the importance of not building new coal plants
    unless the technology to produce power with zero CO2 emissions
    exists.

    The non-profit “Fresh Energy” group, which used to be called ME3, has
    a new website address: http://www.Fresh-Energy.org/

    npat1@juno.com

  6. 156
    Resveratrol says:

    Resveratrol…

    Judge Posner has once again utilized economics as a crutch for stating the obvious, giving his presentation the illusion of scientific rigor by plugging in numbers and then reducing all the considerations one takes into account in engaging in a prevent…

  7. 157
    Fokus says:

    Fokus…

    God I hope FORD does the right thing here. I love my ’02 Mustang GT but I have begun to realize I have to get better fuel mileage and to do that it seems I have to get a lighter car. For me this will be in about 2 years as I have to pay of the F250 fi…


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