More offsetting woes

A colleague told me about an interesting article I’d missing in the grauniad: The inconvenient truth about the carbon offset industry. Which I fear merely confirms my lack of trust of these things.

The main point was that a number of companies are doing offsetting by buying up EU emissions credits and then retiring them. However, since these things are in surplus the prices are very low and retiring them does nothing useful. Other than make money for the middleman, presumably. And, if you don’t inquire to closely, allowing you to wipe away your guilt.

An amusing side-issue in the article concerned British Airways attempts: because of a conflict between those who wanted to promote offsetting, and those who would rather not mention climate change at all, the scheme has hardly had any take-up.

And lastly The British government itself has been caught out over emissions from its presidency of the G8 in 2005. The then environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that all carbon emissions from all meetings and travel linked with the one-year presidency would be neutralised. Delegates to the Gleneagles summit in July 2005 were given certificates declaring that all their carbon emissions were being offset. But it hasn’t happened. Because of foul-ups in setting up the scheme. So you can’t even trust the govenment (whats new?) on something as basic as “yes we’ve managed to at least in theory offset your emissions”.


  1. #1 SCM

    I hope you’ll forgive an off topic reply to point out another newspaper article in that herald-of-doom otherwise known as the Independent. It is a front-pager featuring a paper (Phil Trans R. Soc. A) by Hansen et al talking about collapsing ice-shelves and the possibility of scary sea-level rises of metres in a century.
    Newspaper article: The Earth today stands in imminent peril
    The Hansen paper is here. The “imminent peril” quote comes from the paper itself (in subsection (d)):

    (d ) Planet Earth today: imminent peril
    The imminent peril is initiation of dynamical and thermodynamical processes
    on the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets that produce a situation out of
    humanity’s control…”

    Anyway I’d be interested to hear the collective views on this. Are Hansen and Co at odds with what other scientists are measuring/predicting or are they raising a reasonable concern?

    They are certainly going for fairly strong language by scientific standards.

  2. #2 Zeke

    At least in theory, offsets are not a bad idea, but in the absence of any uniform standards or regulation you run into a lot of problems with the authenticity of various schemes. For example, I’ve heard through the grapevine about a few VER (voluntary emissions reduction) projects here in India that have sold the same reductions to multiple offset companies. The absence of a strict additionality standard for VERs means that a lot of projects that would have been done anyway get passed off as actual emissions reductions.

    The current offset market is also extremely underpriced, as its picking the proverbial low-hanging fruit of emissions reductions. As more countries begin to adopt a carbon price (via taxes or tradable permits), and as more methodologies are approved for certifying emission reductions (CERs) for CDM markets, we can expect voluntary prices to rise accordingly.

    Frankly, if an organization wants to make a real gesture today, given the problems with the voluntary markets, they should just buy CDM CERs or phase two EU ETS credits.

  3. #3 mz

    Offsets should be very toughly regulated and supervised.
    They are not fundamentally flawed.

  4. #4 Luna_the_cat

    One of the things they don’t mention as a problem with the tree-planting schemes such as ClimateCare run, but which I’m sure I’ve seen flagged up in Science, is the fact that carbon credits are granted for planting trees, but not currently for preserving them. It is possible to create and sell carbon offset credits by clear-cutting existing forest and replanting with pine monocultures, which is just a bit crap.

  5. #5 Luboš Motl

    You can now buy carbon debits to offset the impact of carbon credits.

  6. #6 fergus

    There is no chance of carbon-offsetting having any impact whilst governments ‘grandfather’ the allowances to emitters. Making them pay, however, for their credits, would be seen as restrictive and ‘recessionary’. In any case, as things stand, a market in carbon is not, and is unlikely to result in actual reductions in emissions.Arguably, the offsetting mechanisms will also fail to contribute (a tree must live in the right part of the world for 100 years to offset the relevant amount of carbon dioxide). If offsetting is merely a mechanism for the transfer of funds from developed to developing nations, with conditions attached, I am sure some other mechanism would be more effective and reliable.

    In the meantime, I recommend the purchase of sections of rainforest and the use of such ownership to prevent any deforestation exercise in that area. If enough of us bought enough of the land/forest, and set it aside, it might make some useful impact. it might also encourage our governments to do the same. In the end, we have to make it economically more worthwhile for developing nations not to cut down forests, one way or another. Then we need to increase our own energy efficiency (especially in power generation) by 50% or better; these will result in a slowdown of CO2 emissions.

  7. #7 Zeke

    Actually, fergus, the decision to grandfather or auction permits has no real bearing on voluntary emissions markets (other than by lowering consumer discretionary spending, but that a negligible effect). Permit systems are interesting in that the explicitly separate efficiency and equity criteria. The efficiency of the system is solely determined by the number of the permits in the system, while the equity of the system is determined by the initial distribution of permits. Changing the initial distribution can make the system less regressive, but cannot do much to change its efficiency in generating actual emissions reductions.

    That said, in light of the windfall profits to regulated power producers in the EU ETS phase one, many systems are moving toward auctioning more permits.

  8. #8 Adam

    Sort of off-topic, but Monbiot does answer questions about this in his Guardian Q&A today:

  9. #9 Magnus W

    I don’t agree with all of it but this is interesting to read,

  10. #10 Hank Roberts

    Buried at the bottom of the article:

    “the very idea of offsetting relies on what is known as additionality – evidence that a carbon reduction would not have occurred in the natural order of commercial life. …

    “One measure of the crisis is the progress of the gold standard scheme, which is backed by Greenpeace and other environmental groups as a particularly rigorous process to ensure that emission reductions are verified, additional and consistent with sustainable development. …. has registered seven projects, two of which have so far produced some 350,000 tonnes of verified gold standard carbon reductions. And suddenly, as so many other projects struggle with uncertainty, it has unfilled orders for eight million more.”

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