Source: An Even More Inconvenient Truth from ProPublica

Can we create ‘credits’ that companies can buy to offset their emissions by ‘proving’ that a forest is sequestering a certain amount of carbon?

In most of these cases, these carbon offsets don’t actually work. They either

  1. don’t offset the amount they were supposed to do
  2. bought gains that were quickly offset
  3. amount of carbon couldn’t be measured accurately

Ultimately leading polluters to get off scott-free while the planet still suffers. Is this still ok thought? As long as some trees are saved and foreign aid is going toward protecting forests

Carbon offsets are just “charismatic carbon” — they offer a feel-good story of environmental and social good without doing much

Originally was a compromise between European, American, and developing nations

  1. European leaders wanted to create policies to encourage industry to pollute less
  2. Americans wanted flexibility
  3. Developing nations (e.g. Brazil) wanted money to deal with climate change

On paper, this seemed perfect: if it cost too much to reduce emissions in one area, you could ‘buy’ the equivalent offset. This in theory could incentivize orgs to try and develop more green tech (e.g. solar plant in favour of a coal plant) in anticipation of carbon credit sales

In practice doesn’t work super well

  1. Clean Development Mechanism: 85% of offsets had a ‘low likelihood’ of creating real impacts
  2. Joint Implementation: 75% of the credits issued were unlikely to represent real reductions

Leakage: protecting one patch of land could lead to deforestation somewhere else as loggers work to try and meet quotas

Preserving land and trees is hard in any developing country is hard: the poverty and lack of infrastructure “drives people to violate whatever protections are in place to plant crops or mine for gold or just have enough lumber to build their homes”

When a tree is destroyed, all the carbon accumulated over its lifetime is released back into the atmosphere.

But there’s not a lot of incentive for local residents

  • Rubber sells for about 2 reais/kg (roughly enough for a cup of coffee) whereas a single cow is ~800 reais ($200)
  • Sustainable logging didn’t pay enough
  • Government subsidies don’t consider enough things
    • Digging fish ponds but they don’t produce enough
    • Rubber-tapping tries but can’t afford fertilizer for the poor Amazon soil

Gerrymandering but for trees? A lot of the offset calculations are based off of regional averages for carbon, projects can then take advantage of ‘unusually high’ concentration areas with certain types of trees to game the system and gain more credits than they should have.

This could actually benefit indigenous tribes because of their more conservative approach to logging — in fact, offsets can enable tribes to reduce logging. However, “some tribal members are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of selling offsets to companies like this even if they are legitimate, fearing they’re effectively profiting from pollution.”

Good Offsets?

Source: Buying Offsets

  1. Transparency: any individual credits can not be purchased more than once
  2. Permanence: credits should not be liable to be undone
  3. Additionality: by facilitating this activity, more carbon was drawn down than would have been
  4. Monitoring and Verification: transparent and public processes for ensuring captured carbon stays where it should