permaculture for nine billion
permanent place [topia]
Pentagon climate change study
limited hang out / greenwash
- groups - toxics - food
safety - energy - global warming - forest
hierarchy of needs
mad cow disease
filters, solar distillation
boycott bottled water
blue gold: clean water
conservation for renters
100 mpg cars
transit & trains
internet not jets
a terrible thing to mind
reuse, not recycle
clearcuts & climate change
the end of growth
Carbon Neutral Isn't:
a hoax to distract from honest policies
Carbon credits to supposedly offset petroleum pollution are a fraud.
Paying someone to install solar panels or plant trees is a good thing,
but it does not sequester fossil carbon out of the biosphere. It is physically
impossible for solar panels or tree plantations to stick fossil carbon
back into the crust of the Earth.
If we're going to address the scale of the energy crisis, we need to
be honest enough to admit that airplane travel and burning mountains
and other toxic behaviors are not good for the planet, even if someone
claims we can reach absolution for our sins by giving someone money.
carbon neutral: a marketing term used to entice consumers with guilty
consciences. Carbon neutral claims are a form of subsidizing efficiency
programs that are usually good projects, but do not capture and neutralize
the carbon emitted by the original polluting activity supposedly being
mitigated. Burning fossil fuels do not become "climate neutral"
because the person who burned the fuel pays to subsidize installation
of photovoltaic panels or other equipment in another location. Carbon
neutral would be true if usage of carbon-based fuels was offset by capturing
of an equivalent amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Most carbon neutral
policies displace increases in combustion of carbon fuels but that merely
slows the increase of atmospheric carbon (which is not "neutral").
A great parody of the carbon neutral promotion campaign is
Cheatneutral is about offsetting infidelity. We're the only people doing it, and Cheatneutral is a joke.
Carbon offsetting is about paying for the right to carry on emitting carbon. The Carbon offset industry sold £60 million of offsets last year, and is rapidly growing. Carbon offsetting is also a joke.
Why it's harder than you think to pay for a carbon guilt trip
Stumping up to compensate for environmentally costly air travel is
a complicated business. Patrick Collinson investigates
AUGUST 30, 2007 > WEB ONLY
Offsets Aren’t Enough
Two environmental groups cave in to Big Coal in Texas
By MEGAN TADY
Besides allowing polluters to wriggle off the hook with ease, offsets are harmful because they send a message that the community housing the coal plant isn’t worth much. It’s all well and good that NuCoastal may curtail emissions elsewhere, or trade mercury emissions credits, but that does nothing to safeguard the community where the actual power plant belches out toxins. ....
... Credit for “reducing” emissions of a toxin that harms children’s brain function, while still releasing it into the air? We might as well applaud the Bush administration for deploying smart bombs that supposedly “reduce” the number of civilians killed in air strikes.
And it’s the applause that’s disconcerting. Rather than admitting defeat—because a new coal plant, no matter the scrubber, is a loss—Public Citizen and the SEED Coalition’s language about the agreement sounds as if it was some sort of gain for the environmental movement.
The chipper press release from the groups announcing the NuCoastal agreement says, “Environmentalists applaud offsets of carbon dioxide and mercury emissions,” and that the agreement is “precedent-setting.”
This press release might as well have been written by Tony Snow for the way it obfuscates the truth about the situation. We need honesty from our leading environmental groups if we really plan to go toe-to-toe with Big Coal, not some letter from camp telling Mom everything’s fine despite a daily beating from a bully.
If we are to make any real effort at minimizing climate change, the default, mainstream approach from environmentalists has to be keeping fossil fuels in the ground, not burning them with an asterisk. But as long as our leading environmental groups continue touting offsets and emissions reductions like they’re viable solutions to our predicament, we’ll never move to a truly sustainable way of living.
THE ‘CARBON-NEUTRAL’ MYTH
We cannot rest on our laurels, or indeed our yews or oaks.
OVER THE PAST few years, the idea of carbon ‘offset’ or ‘carbon-neutral’
projects has found a large following. Show-biz celebrities, aid agencies
and even financial institutions like the World Bank hail tree-planting
and similar projects as a win-win-win approach to global warming. But
can climate damage caused by fossil-fuel emissions really be ‘neutralised’
The idea is simple enough: we pay someone else, somewhere else, to cover
their land with trees, and they will soak up the carbon dioxide released
through the emissions from our bargain flight to the sun or that flashy
CD release or that big corporate conference. We can go on using fossil
fuels without affecting the climate as long as we plant enough trees.
So what’s wrong with using trees to soak up greenhouse gases?
What ‘offset’ forestry does is confuse fossil carbon with
biological carbon. It claims that emissions from burning oil, gas or coal
can be considered equal, in climatic terms, to the biological carbon stored
in a tree. One UK-based ‘carbon-neutral’ service says that
it can calculate exactly how many trees someone will need to plant and
tend for ninety-nine years in order to soak up the emissions generated
by air travel to, say, Brussels.
The problem in reality is that carbon emissions from burned oil, gas or
coal cannot be considered as equal to the same amount of biological carbon
in a tree. Why not? Because there exists naturally an active carbon pool
with carbon freely moving between forests, oceans and air. The fossil
carbon pool, in contrast, is inert. But once out of the ground, fossil
carbon joins the active carbon pool and will not go back into the fossil
carbon pool for millennia. Releasing fossil carbon increases the active
carbon pool, and this is the crucial difference between fossil and biological
Of course, trees can also die, at which point they release most of the
carbon that they keep locked away from the atmosphere. In relation to
‘offset’ forestry, proponents assure us that they can calculate
the odds and take this into consideration. Yet within scientific circles
intense debate continues about whether one can actually predict over the
next century, or even the next decade, the carbon fluxes of complex ecosystems.
CAN ANYONE REALLY calculate the carbon performance of a tree? Can we really
guarantee how much carbon planted forests can mop up? Cambridge University
landscape historian Oliver Rackham suggests that “For its practical
effect, telling people to plant trees to reduce global warming is like
telling them to drink more water to keep rising sea levels down.”
Even if we could accurately predict the carbon performance of a tree,
just dealing with the increased carbon dioxide emissions we will generate
worldwide over the next half century would require completely covering
Europe – from the Atlantic to the Ural mountains – with trees.
Soaking up the UK’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions would require
planting an area of forest the size of Devon and Cornwall every single
year – and maintaining it forever.
But carbon ‘offset’ troubles don’t end there. The Norwegian
organisation The Future In Our Hands has described tree-planting projects
in Uganda and Tanzania as a new form of colonialism, under which Northern
companies and affluent citizens claim lands in the South to ‘compensate’
for damage caused by burning fossil fuel elsewhere. Already, monoculture
plantations aimed at soaking up carbon dioxide released in the North are
damaging lands essential to many peoples’ survival in Brazil, Ecuador,
Uganda and Tanzania. Reports released by the World Rainforest Movement
and the Forest Peoples Programme show that local and indigenous communities
in Ecuador and India are paying a high price for carbon ‘offset’
projects they signed up to on the promise of jobs and development. In
reality, these projects simply entrench social inequality, demand unpaid
labour to fulfil communities’ contractual obligations, and further
weaken traditional land rights.
Closer to home, tree planting charities are also getting the short end
of the stick. They receive only a small fraction (around 2%) of the fee
paid to carbon ‘offset’ services for planting a tree. According
to The Observer, this amounts to approximately twelve pence out of the
six pounds charged for planting the tree – certainly not enough
to plant and preserve a tree for ninety-nine years.
SADLY, MUCH AS we’d all like a way to combat the ever–worsening
problem of climate change, and wonderful though trees are, they do not
provide a magic solution that will allow us to go on mining and burning
fossil fuels. Carbon ‘offset’ projects may salve our conscience,
but they won’t solve the problem of global warming. On the contrary,
by creating the illusion that all is well as long as we pay a little extra,
they may further delay global agreement on decisive action to avert climate
Jutta Kill is Climate Change Campaign Co-ordinator for FERN. www.fern.org
Al Gore's Carbon Solution Won't Stop Climate Change
By David Morris, AlterNet. Posted March 12, 2007.
These days, everyone thinks that carbon trading is the solution to
our climate crisis -- from Congress members to Al Gore to the folks organizing
the Oscars. Here's why they are wrong and what we can do instead.
At the Oscars, former Vice President Al Gore and megastar actor Leonardo
DiCaprio informed a billion viewers that this was the first "green
Oscar," at least with respect to global warming. The hosts had purchased
sufficient greenhouse gas offsets to allow them to free the event of
any responsibility for increasing greenhouse gases.
Two days later, Al Gore and emission offsets were again in the news when
reports circulated that his Nashville house consumed 20 times more energy
than a typical house. His spokesman responded: The Gore family had purchased
green electricity and carbon offsets in sufficient quantities to render
the house's net contribution to global warming as zero.
Over the succeeding weeks, a flurry of articles appeared about the growing
use of carbon offsets. According to USA Today, the market for voluntary
offsets in 2006 was almost 20 times greater than it was in 2004. Dwarfing
this market is the market for what might be called involuntary offsets
-- that is offsets purchased as part of the mandatory emissions reductions
program agreed to by the 38 industrial nation signatories of the Kyoto
Protocol. Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank and
a major player in the global climate change game, estimates the value
of carbon credits currently in circulation as $28 billion and predicts
it will climb to $40 billion by 2010.
The shortcomings of current carbon trading systems are clear. As a piece
in Newsweek concluded, "So far, the real winners in emissions trading
have been polluting factory owners who can sell menial cuts for massive
profits and the brokers who pocket fees each time a company buys or sells
the right to pollute."
Currently, the link between the purchase of carbon offsets and the actual
reduction of carbon emissions is highly controversial and almost impossible
to verify. The process is easily manipulated. Measurement tools are remarkably
primitive. Even the most basic calculations are subject to wide variations.
The New Internationalist requested estimates from four reputable carbon
trading companies for the number of credits a passenger would need to
purchase to offset an around-the-world flight, starting and ending in
London. The magazine received four answers: 4.3, 6, 8.68 and 11.63 tons.
Despite the criticisms, the concept of emissions trading continues to
be vigorously supported by major U.S. environmental organizations. The
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, recently embraced by nine northeastern
and mid-Atlantic states, allows for carbon trading, as does California's
new global warming initiative. Emissions trading is at the heart of the
European Union's strategy to meet its Kyoto Protocol goals. Several congressional
bills embrace carbon trading to meet greenhouse gas-reduction goals.
Most environmentalists tend to agree with the assessment of Dan Esty,
director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy: "Carbon
trading is a promising strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions
but the current structures have serious flaws."
In other words, the system is new. As with all new systems, carbon offset
trading is working out the kinks. Carbon trading 2.0 will be much better
than carbon trading 1.0. Give it a chance.
I disagree. Carbon trading is not a promising strategy. Its costs outweigh
its benefits. We don't need carbon trading to reduce carbon emissions.
Indeed, it is likely that we will reduce carbon emissions much more without
Unfortunately, policymakers and environmentalists have all but wielded
together the words, "cap" and "trade." They talk
as if a cap cannot exist without a trading mechanism. That's not true.
We can have caps without trade.
We should impose an immediate moratorium on carbon trading while imposing
ever-more rigorous carbon caps. And stop the use of long-distance offsets.
All offsets should be local or regional.
Why is carbon trading inherently problematic?
1. Buying offsets encourages complacency.
Those who purchase offsets believe they are doing something significant
when they are not. Their sense of mission accomplished undermines their
enthusiasm for real actions that require more sacrifice, which indeed,
may be the key selling point for those selling voluntary offsets. As
Mike Mason, Climate Care founder told the New Internationalist, "I
would rather that 100 percent of people offset their emissions from flights
than 50 percent of those people not fly at all."
George Monbiot, author of the terrific new book, "Heat" (the
U.S. edition will be published in April by South End Press) has likened
the purchase of offsets to the purchase of medieval indulgences. We sin,
and we buy absolution.
Even worse, the cost of absolution is so low, little incentive exists
to dissuade us from sinning again, and again. For less than the cost
of a single tank of gasoline, BP allows its Australian consumers to sign
up for a program in which the company offsets any carbon emitted from
cars using its gasoline all year long. Environmentally speaking, one
might say that at a BP station you can fill and unfill a gas tank at
the same time.
Using $10 per ton of CO2 as the average offset price (current prices
are as low as $3 per ton), the United States, which generates about 20
percent of the world's greenhouse gases, could buy complete absolution
for about $50 billion a year. For that price it would announce to the
world, as the Oscars did, that we are not responsible for any net new
greenhouse gases. The cost is less than half the annual spending on the
war in Iraq, a little over 5 percent of the Pentagon's annual budget.
2. Carbon trading is inherently susceptible to fraud and manipulation.
Carbon trading systems are devised and managed by computerized brokers
who buy and sell on a global scale. Their goal is to increase the volume
of trades while buying low and selling high; that is, selling credits
at a price higher than they buy them. Nothing necessarily wrong with
that. But globalized, computerized trading is notoriously untransparent.
We know that Enron and others manipulated the electricity market to create
a crisis and steal billions of dollars from California households and
businesses, primarily because we have tapes of Enron traders on the phone
bragging about their manipulations. Yet to this day, investigators have
had a hard time identifying the data trail that would prove malfeasance.
Some carbon traders guarantee to retire their credits, which is a step
in the right direction. Far more will buy and sell them on a secondary
market. As a secondary market emerges, as happened with currency trading
in the 1980s and electricity trading in the 1990s, we will see the introduction
of ever-more complex and abstract carbon-based financial instruments.
And as with electricity and currency trading, an exceedingly handsome
prize will go to those who can figure out how to game the system.
One large company announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol's
program of allowing signatories to buy carbon offsets from developing
countries while predicting that current carbon-accounting methodologies "will
create other Enrons and Arthur Andersens."
The New York Times reports on a deal in which the carbon offsets for
a $5 million incinerator in China were sold to European investors for
$500 million. "The huge profits will be divided by the factory's
owners, a Chinese government energy fund and the consultants and bankers
who put together the deal from a mansion in the wealthy Mayfair district
of London," the Times observes.
3. Carbon trading encourages cheating and rewards low-cost cosmetic changes
while undermining higher cost innovation.
The greater the "baseline" emissions, the greater the payoff
that can be derived from selling emission-reducing projects. Thus, there
is a perverse incentive to emit as much greenhouse gas as possible today
in order to make projects appear to be saving as much carbon as possible
The Dag Hammarskjold Foundation did an excellent analysis of carbon trading
in its September 2006 Development Dialogue magazine. "With a bit
of judicious accounting," the report found, "a company investing
in foreign 'carbon-saving' projects can increase fossil emissions both
at home and abroad while claiming to make reductions in both locations."
Carbon traders seek the lowest cost carbon offset. Which almost always
means tree planting in some far off country, without regard to its long-term
effects on the community or the environment, or a modest reduction in
the emissions of a highly polluting factory in a developing nation. A
company needing, or wanting, offsets may have to choose between investing
a significant amount of capital that has long-term and very substantial
savings, or buying much lower cost and short-term offsets. From a short-term
economic perspective, the latter will always be the preferred choice.
A study reported in Nature, the scientific journal, supported this proposition.
It found that only 2 percent of the United Nations' trading projects
involving either renewable energy or communities that follow eco-friendly
practices with regard to tree cultivation and harvesting.
4. Carbon trading separates authority and responsibility, undermining
coherent, holistic community-based efforts.
Globalized carbon trading lends itself to similar criticisms of globalized
trade agreements: the preemption of local and national authority, the
separation of those who make the decisions from those who feel the impact
of those decisions, the separation of those communities that receive
the benefit from those who bear the cost.
Indeed, Michael Zammit Cutajar, ex-executive secretary of the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has made the comparison
explicit: "Establishing a robust global regime for addressing climate
change is ... comparable to the creation of the international trade regime
under the World Trade Organization."
The Hammarskjold Foundation offers a case study of one of the first international
carbon offsets project, and its aftermath. In the late 1980s, Applied
Energy Service, Inc. (AES), a U.S.-based independent power producer,
had been looking for a cost-effective technique for reducing carbon dioxide
emissions at a new 183-megawatt coal fired power plant in Connecticut
in order to make the plant more acceptable to state regulators.
AES decided to "mitigate" the plant's carbon emissions by offering
$2 million to finance 10 years' worth of "land-use activities and
multiple-use forestry projects" in Guatemala. Some 40,000 small
farms would plant 50 million pine and eucalyptus trees in the course
of establishing 30,000 acres of community woodlots and 150,000 acres
AES obtained permission to build the coal-fired power plant. But an analysis
done 10 years later found that the offsets had fallen very far short
of the level promised. More importantly, the project took access to the
trees out of the hands of ordinary people. One result was that conflict
grew between municipal and village authorities and individual landowners.
Another result was increasing distrust of government forest offices.
And finally, the Guatemala-based organization that was supposed to manage
and monitor the project found that the level of monitoring required diverted
its resources away from its more community-building projects.
As with the WTO, globalized carbon trading regimes are very susceptible
to corporate influence. Which is why, despite strong opposition from
environmental organizations, the EU allowed offsets to occur outside
It is true that a ton of CO2 reduced in Africa has the same impact on
the biosphere and global warming as a ton of CO2 reduced in Minneapolis.
But there are other impacts that come with that reduction that have a
more localized impact. Reducing carbon emissions invariably also reduces
toxics that constitute a local and regional threat, like lead or mercury
or benzene or arsenic or particulate matter or ground level ozone. An
urban-based coal fired power plant that offsets its CO2 emissions by
helping to plant trees in Africa continues to emit pollutants that adversely
affect the health of local residents.
Where do we go from here?
Is there an alternative to carbon trading? Of course there is. Emissions
trading itself is a relatively new policy tool. It was first used by
the EPA in the late 1970s but became a key component of U.S. environmental
policy in the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 when the trading of SOx
emissions was allowed.
By the late 1990s the Clinton and Gore administration and major environmental
organizations were pushing the use of offsets internationally at the
Kyoto negotiations. As Michael Zammit Cutajar, the former executive secretary
of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has said,
the carbon trading approach embodied in Kyoto was "made in the U.S.A."
But the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol is only about a year old.
The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme came on line only in 2005.
The Northeast Greenhouse Gas Initiative and California's low carbon initiative
are still in the rule-making stage. There is plenty of time to step back
from the growing reliance on the purchase and trading of long-distance
One alternative is good old regulation, which contrary to the popular
wisdom, has worked very well, especially when the regulations are performance-based.
The United States required 23 years to eliminate leaded gasoline, in
part because it created a lead trading program. Without allowing trading,
Japan eliminated lead in 10 years and China in three. The Corporate Average
Fuel Economy regulation, enacted in 1975, did not allow trading but effectively
doubled auto efficiency within 10 years. The 1970 Clean Air Act, without
allowing trading, reduced emissions significantly through a regulatory
Environmentalists almost always point to the experience under the SOx
emissions trading a highly successful use of emissions trading, and that
experience was highly influential in persuading nations to adopt emissions
offset trading under Kyoto. It is important to note here that no one
claims the SOx trading program reduced emissions more or even more rapidly
than would have occurred without trading. The argument is that it achieved
a given level of emissions cheaper.
SOx trading did reduce the costs of reducing emissions to 9 million tons.
But it is unclear just how much the costs were reduced. The Hammarskjold
Foundation estimates that at least 20 per cent of the SOx reductions
were achieved before the emissions trading program began. Moreover, it
argues that factors other than trading were far more important, such
as the increased availability of low sulfur coal, and the plunging transportation
prices in the aftermath of the railroad deregulation of the mid 1980s.
In addition, the claimed cost reductions are from the initially wildly
inflated estimated costs of cutting emissions developed by industry.
In fact, after the trading scheme got under way, many installations managed
to cut emissions without trading at all. Most of those who did trade
traded only within their own firm. Interfirm trading amounted to only
2 percent of total emissions.
Thus the savings achieved through SOx trading were probably modest. And
it represented a best-case scenario for savings. Measurement equipment
was widely available. There was a single target chemical. Only a small
number of installations were included in the program.
A greenhouse gas reduction program, however, targets at least half a
dozen chemicals and encompasses hundreds of millions of targeted facilities.
And measurement and monitoring equipment is unavailable.
Another program adopted about the same time as the SOx trading program
might serve as a better model for implementing the Kyoto Protocol. The
discovery of the depletion of atmospheric ozone led to the international
Montreal Accord. Signatories agreed to phase out specific ozone depleting
chemicals. The U.S. Congress coupled the phase-out requirement with a
very high tax on chlorofluorocarbons, sending an important price signal
it correctly predicted would accelerate phase-out.
Of course, most greenhouse gases can't be phased out. They are part of
the natural cycle. But a national and state carbon cap, ratcheted down
every five years is similar. To provide a price signal for the market
and to raise money for ameliorative investments and other public purposes
(e.g., compensating low income households for price increases), impose
a significant and increasing carbon tax. Or possibly, governments could
auction off carbon allowances (while not allowing trading) and use the
money raised for similar purposes.
Offsets should be allowed, but only if they occur on the local level
and do not involve long-distance trading. Let me explain this further.
For the past year, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has been working
with states and cities to encourage the enactment of climate neutral
bonding initiatives and climate neutral building codes. Such codes would
encourage architects and engineers to design energy efficient buildings.
But rarely will they result in literally zero energy buildings. Thus
even in the best cases some amount of greenhouse gases will be emitted.
That amount will have to be offset. But the offset must come from a comparable
reduction of greenhouse gases within the community. If Al Gore were operating
under this standard, he would have to invest in greenhouse gas reductions
within Nashville equal to the amount of greenhouse gases generated by
Initially architects and builders will see this as an inconvenience.
Far simpler to buy offsets from the Chicago Climate Exchange or other
offset traders. But eventually, as communities develop an inventory of
buildings that need energy efficiency investments, the overhead costs
involved will be quite small.
There are psychological, political and economic reasons to favor investing
in carbon reductions within the community. Psychologically, it builds
self-awareness at the community level about the interrelationship of
individual behavior and global environmental consequences. The community
as a whole is taking responsibility for its behavior.
Politically, cities and counties have a great deal of authority over
policies that affect energy use (e.g., building codes, land use regulations,
transportation systems). Here, authority is married to responsibility.
A community that decides, as a community, to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol
or more rigorous guidelines has many policy tools to move it toward that
Economically, local offsets may be viewed as investments while buying
distant paper offsets are more of an operating expense. Offsets must
be purchased every year. But an investment will repay itself in energy
savings. In the first case, money flows out of the community. In the
second case, money not only stays in the community, but after the initial
debt is repaid from reduced operating costs, additional money is generated
within the community.
Carbon trading makes us feel good. Investing in local carbon reduction
strategies will also make us feel good. But unlike carbon trading, investing
to reduce local carbon emissions strengthens the local economy, encourages
real innovation, and is a long-term, durable strategy.