The arguments in favor of counterfeit carbon credits still fail no matter how often they are repeated  

Common talking points(TP)  and replies(R)

TP) Cap-and-trade will be too expensive if we don’t do offsets. And then we need a higher cap!

R) Counterfeit carbon credits are just a back door way to raise the cap. It is prioritizing the number printed in the law over actual emission reductions.

TP) Offsets aren’t counterfeit credits. Offsets rock!

R) Offsets are inherently counterfeit. An offset compares the results of a project against what a consultant guesses would have happened if it had not occurred. The higher the guess (the “business as usual scenario” or BAU), the higher the profit an offset project makes.  Because offsets substitute for government issued credits, they serve as permits to emit.  To the extent the BAU scenario is too high, (to the extent the consultant overestimates what emissions would have been without the offset), the offset is counterfeit an increases emissions compared to doing the project. International rivers has documents how most existing offsets (both approved and in the pipeline) under Kyoto are doubtful. For example, credits are granted for hydro power world wide, in spite of the fact that hydro power is something likely to be built anyway.  Hydro power is valuable. It can be used for baseload, peaking or load following. Depending on turbine design, in some cases it can be combined with super-capacitors to provide spinning reserve.

TP) Waxman-Markey offsets are different. WM offsets must be existing, additional and permanent!

R) Saying it does not make it happen.  Additionality is still based on a guess. What is worse, that guess is still made by consultant hired by the offset project. Regulators only review the consultants estimate, just as they do in CDM.

TP) We shouldn’t worry about offsets. There won’t be that many of them anyway.

R) Waxman-Markey offers lots of ways to create new offset. The argument that there won’t be many new offsets depends on the assumption that a consultant based system won’t find ways to get bogus ones past reviewers.

TP) We need offsets for forestry and agriculture.

R) If we could measure agriculture and forestry precisely and accurately enough to serve as more or less exact counter-balances to lumps of coal, we could include them in cap-and-trade (or levy a carbon tax on land use emissions).  Living ecosystems constantly breathe and absorb carbon. So even with precise, accurate continuous measurement that would limit the precision and accuracy with which we could measure change. Because we would have to use some sort of estimate to decide how to average data and over what period to create a baseline, and over what period and by what formula to average multiple increases and decreases to measure changes.  But measurement is NOT that precise or accurate. We can use satellite data, which is indicative, but not at all precise or accurate on a per forested or farmed area basis. We can use direct soil measurements such as Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS). Note that even with such advanced technology, the samples themselves measure carbon within an area at a particular point in time with between 3% and 14% accuracy, depending on various factors including how many samples are taken from a given area. But since they are not taken continuously, they are applied as corrections to remote sensing. If we are lucky we end up with total accuracy over the course of the year for the area measured as a whole of 10% to 25%. Note that actual changes in soil carbon may vary by less than the 3% which is the bottom range of accuracy for a one-day result. Given the greater inaccuracy over the course of a year, it seems likely that on a year-to-year basis it is possible for carbon measurement to get the sign wrong, let along the quantity change.

TP) Sob, you don’t care about the rainforests and the topsoil, sob. Sniffle, without offset credits what oh what is left?

R) Note the hidden assumption here, that solving global warming equals cap-and-trade (or if you are a DFH a carbon tax). If it is priceless, it is hopeless. But of course measuring soil and biomass carbon even with a 25% accuracy is quite good if you move beyond cap-and-trade to actually worrying about emissions. We know how to preserve soil and biomass carbon.  Build rather than destroy soil. Disturb soil (and especially roots) as little as possible – consistent with other good soil management practices. Practice biodiversity rather than planting just one or a few crops.  Use water efficiently. Minimize runoff. Use organic or ultra-low input agriculture. And as reinforcement, to make sure all this is working, 25% accurate measure will be quite useful. Establish a rough baseline over the course of years. Take measurements four times a year, year after year. The results won’t give you good enough numbers to trade for lumps of coal, but they will be good enough to tell you every few years or so whether your soil conservation practices are working. And they will be good enough to tell you whether they are working (or failing) by a lot or a little.  You can build standard based regulations on that level of measurement. For that matter you can take some of the money used for current agricultural subsidies, and use it to provide positive incentives based on that type of measurement. Its good enough for a lot approaches, just not good enough for carbon trading.

TP) Are you saying offsets can never ever do any good?

R) Oh no, they can accomplish quite a lot. They make profits for large corporations and revenue for governments and consultants. They provide employment for public and private jugglers of red tape. They let politicians make weak climate bills look stronger than they really are.  They help build self-esteem among mainstream environmentalists.  They just don’t lower greenhouse gas emissions or help solve the climate crisis. 


References

 

Glen Hurowitz, Understanding Offsets, Grist, 31-May-2009

 

 

International Rivers, Rip-Offsets: The Failure of The Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism,  November 2008

 

David A. Cremers, Michael H. Ebinger, David D. Breshears, Pat J. Unkefer, Susan A. Kammerdiener, Monty J. Ferris, Kathryn M. Catlett and Joel R. Brown; Measuring Total Soil Carbon with Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) ;Journal of Environmental Quality; pp 2202-2206;Vol 30; Nov-Dec 2001.