Why carbon emission offsets can’t work

From the authors of Breakthrough.

There are five reasons why setting a price on carbon dioxide, either through a cap and trade approach or an outright tax, cannot reduce greenhouse gas emissions anywhere close to what is needed.

1. The regulation-centered approach won’t result in the deep reductions in global carbon emissions that climate scientists believe are necessary to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.

2. Governments will continue to set a low price for carbon, which will prevent clean energy sources from becoming cost-competitive.

3. Developing nations like China will not sacrifice their economic growth to reduce its emissions.

This crucial point is too often overlooked in the States. Developing countries look at environmentalists and carbon caps as elitist, preachy, and deliberating attempting to slow their economy. Why does the West, the biggest polluter of all, they ask, have the right to tell us not to develop the power and transport systems that they already have?

4. Dramatic and rapid technological breakthroughs will not be primarily driven by the private sector.

5. Public investment will be far more important than pollution limits in driving technological innovation and reducing the real price of clean energy. This point seems to be controversial only among environmentalists.

This is their key point. Only massive investing by governments can (hopefully) create new ways sources of clean, non-polluting energy. As an example, they use the Internet. It was the huge amounts of government-led R&D into chips, fiber, and Arpanet that led to the net of today. Private companies certainly have contributed to the R&D in recent years, but it was the US government (specifically the military) that created what became the Internet. So, they say, let’s do the same with clean energy.

Other major problems with carbon caps is that for them to work, they must be universal and verifiable, something they are nowhere close to being. If one country institutes strict caps, a business can simply move to a less restrictive (or more easily bribed) country. Plus, just because, say, WalMart buys credits for 10,000 trees in Borneo doesn’t mean they were actually planted and maintained. There needs to be transparent audit trails on trading emissions, and no such systems exist at present. And again, they need to be universal.

Carbon emission offsets are kludgy, unworkable, and unenforceable. We need massive public research into clean energy along with cutbacks in consumption by all.

Ecogeek sums it up well.

You can change the world by changing technology. So, you can try and ban coal fired power plants all day and night for the next thirty years and you won’t have much luck. But if you go get a degree in physics, and create a solar panel that produces cheaper electricity than coal power plants, then no legislation in the world is going to keep coal alive.

  • DJ

    Interesting, but some of the fundamental assumptions are inaccurate. For example, to date, nearly all renewable energy and much of the conservation technology has been created by small companies and individuals– and much of it has been bought and buried by the big energy companies because it threatens their business model. Overall, large companies spend hundreds of billions on R&D, yet small companies operating on a shoestring still create half the innovations. From solar panels to electric cars and high mileage carbeurators, smalls have put energy technology on the map. I’d love to see a massive research investment in clean energy technology– but don’t waste it all on big corporations, because (in general) they’re much less efficient with their money and much more afraid of change.

    You may have noticed that in my post on carbon offsets, I didn’t consider carbon caps. That’s because they’re not really offsets at all– they’re a regulatory intervention. They might work, but as you say, only in an environment of appropriately priced carbon and worldwide regulatory consistency. Yeah, that could happen. But let’s not confuse regulation with offsets.

    I did note in my post (courtesy of BBC) that Chinese companies have found ways to make money by reducing their emissions. And they’re doing it– not universally yet, but if the market for western guilt remains strong, we may just finance China as the greenest country around.

    Offsets can be part of an integrated approach that includes reduction AND technology– and probably regulation as well. Indeed, offsets MUST be part of the solution, because ultimately (to be crude) no matter what we do, technology cannot eliminate the flatulence of 6 billion people. We still need ways to go beyond emissions reduction, because (1) there’s a fundamental base beyond which we cannot reduce, and (2) to reverse climate change, we need to actually REMOVE carbon from the atmosphere, not just stop adding it. Without cabon-sink offsets, there’s no way to reduce below zero.

    Once again, if you’re looking at offsets as “the” answer, you’re absolutely right– they won’t fix the problem. But technology, regulation, or reduction alone aren’t “the” answer either. We need all the tools in the box. And we need to use the ones we’ve got now while we wait for the others to arrive.

    BTW, as far as whether those trees actually get planted, use reliable vendors like The Arbor Day Foundation. Also, the UK has already imlemented standards for companies offering offsets– hopefully some day our enlightened government will do the same, but in the mean time if we have concerns we can shop regulated British vendors.

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