Greens take another look at offsets

The public perception of carbon offsets has cycled over time, although lately offsets haven’t been in the news much at all, perhaps because the climate change debate has tended to focus on bigger picture issues surrounding the legislation pending in congress. Very recently, though, offsets have garnered some positive press that may signal another turn in the tide of conventional wisdom.

Economist Robert Frank takes to the pages of the New York Times to praise the potential efficiency (as in economic efficiency) benefits of offsets. Glenn Hurowitz makes a similar point in Grist, arguing that any tool to bring about emissions reductions at low cost is a benefit to the environment. And even Joe Romm, no lover of offsets, says that his view has “evolved” to the point that he’s comfortable with the offset provisions in Waxman-Markey bill now before congress.

What’s driving the change in sentiment? Probably a few things. The first is that offset standards have improved considerably, raising confidence both that emissions reductions are real and also that the market won’t be flooded with cheap offsets, removing any incentive for structural changes in the U.S. economy.

The second is that the process of negotiating a climate bill tends to concentrate the mind on the political necessity of keeping carbon prices at a reasonable level. We want a lot of emissions reductions quickly. We also want to avoid blowing apart the delicate coalition required to shepherd a bill through. Done right, offsets help to preserve the environmental integrity of the cap-and-trade system and also ease some of the near-term price pressure.

The third is that offsets help to loop unregulated parts of the economy into cap-and-trade: forests, cows, landfills, etc. These unregulated (or semi-regulated) sources of emissions are an important part of the climate change puzzle.

None of this stuff is really new, but the promise of near-term passage of a climate bill in the U.S. (truly a world historical event) seems to have injected a healthy dose of pragmatism into the debate.

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  1. kathy - June 3, 2009

    Last week I heard James Hansen speak in San Francisco. He made a strong case that despite Markey-Waxman being “a climate bill” it was almost worse than nothing. In the process of getting something through Congress, all these strong climate protection advocates and scientists (Stephen Chu at DOE, John Holdren, etc) are going along with more coal fire plants, a cap and trade system that is complicated and unproven(and gives away a whole lot of trades to dirty industries for no fees), and GHG reduction targets that are not aggressive enough to protect the atmosphere and back off of their previous reduction timetable. What are we doing here?
    He recounted the large number lobbyists oil, gas, coal and utility companies have roving around Washington and, overall, was very bleak about the prospects of this bill helping the situation. Building any more coal plants is a mistake and cannot help us reduce atmospheric Co2 (equivalents)–in fact these will emit more Co2 for the next 40-50 years at a time when we need reductions.
    The reality we are faced with is not the reality of political gridlock on a massively changed energy policy in Washington but the natural reality of 350ppm being the safe limit of GHG in our atmosphere, the fact that we are at 387ppm and according to Wallace Broeker (Columbia earth sciences) we are headed towards 650 ppm unless we make massive changes NOW. And that is without the triggering of positive feedback that could lead to more abrupt t (and less linear) climate changes.
    Hansen is a scientist’s scientist who seem to have become a reluctant activist out of necessity after a long and distinguished career as a leading atmospheric scientist. He is testifying at trials around the world now in defense of activists trying to protect the planet and future generations.
    Hansen is promoting the idea of “intergenerational justice” –that we must take strong actions NOW in order to leave the earth livable for future generations (that’s OUR kids and their kids). This is an obligation those of us alive now have. He hopes the courts will take up this issue–because he is afraid the political system cannot and will not stand up and make the changes that are necessary (yes, even with this new Administration in Washington). The time to take these actions is now. If you are changing your light bulbs, driving less, hanging your clothes out to dry you really must ALSO get politically active to stop any more coal plants from being built in the US starting NOW (today). Also, while you are at it, it would not hurt to speak out against US energy companies buying any coal tar sands from Canada.

  2. Doug - June 3, 2009

    Kathy, James Hansen is someone who deserves our permanent gratitude for his decades-long work to bring climate change to our attention. And no one who’s paying any attention can disagree about the urgency of reining in our greenhouse gas emissions. His activism provides a critical voice in the ongoing debate.
    That said, no act of will or passion will make the fossil fuel industry stop protecting its interests. Scientists are best at telling us the facts, but they aren’t always the best ones to tell us how to use them. Whether we like it or not, we have to accept incremental steps toward the goal, rather than hold out for the great leap forward (and we all know how well that worked out for Mao).

  3. Dave - June 3, 2009

    As a scientist (by education) practicing environmental protection (by profession and avocation), I respect Dr. Hansen and his willingness to tell it like it is with regard to the state of climate science and also about what he thinks is necessary to avert the imminent global warming catastrophe. The number 350 is not being used enough in the context of the Waxman-Markey, and I have no idea whether any benchmarks will be set to compel other than paperwork shuffles for “change” as footprint reductions in the near term next decade or so.
    What we are seeing is all the dynamics Al Gore highlighted in his film– of political wrangling that delays, denies and waters down as long as possible. I have no doubt the Waxman-Markey bill won’t be enough to solve the problem but maybe it will help to slow this tanker’s momentum and help it start to make the turn toward sustainability.
    I tend to agree that pricing carbon (not giving away massive amounts of emisisons credits to start with) is needed now, and the “tax and full rebate” that Hansen advocates is very attractive to me personally since I’m doing pretty well trying to reduce my own family’s carbon footprint.
    The solutions will come from many small and large steps brought on by a revolutionary change of mindset, which a carbon tax might provide and which a cap-and-trade scheme may only start to trend towards.

  4. Bob Thomason - June 3, 2009

    Hansen’s protests, admirable though they are, are not enough. We need the equivalent of Einstein’s Letter to Roosevelt to spur the country to real action. I think climate scientists need to organize in a large act of peaceful civil disobedience. Nothing else will get the attention needed and remove the political noise that has so distorted the issue of climate change. Environmentalists are not trusted by the general public. Scientists are.

  5. Anonymous - June 4, 2009

    Interesting and relevant idea. if you go to James Hansen’s modest Columbia University website you will find that he has posted his personal letters to officials (prime minister or energy ministers) in Germany and Australia about this very topic–their country policies and why they are at odds with scientific recommendations about emissions, building more coal fired plants, etc.
    He also wrote an open letter to Barack and Michele Obama at Christmas time that is also on his website.
    Where are the other scientists backing up this science translation to urgent policy? I work in the Public Health field and our profession needs to speak up much more too.