Hey, did anyone here read that recent article on political strategies for action on climate change? You know, the one published in the National Review? [crickets chirping] OK, I generally don't recommend the National Review on environmental policy, but I couldn't help peeking at the recent article [PDF] by Jim Manzi. Various writers of the more thoughtful right-of-center blogs have alternatively described it as "brilliant" and "a taste of how a wised-up, heads-out-of-the-sand Right could kick [liberals'] ass on the issue" of global warming. I hadn't realized that climate change was a game of flag football, but there you go.
Yesterday morning I attended a "special presentation" of the carbon market survey David summarized earlier. The panel discussion was a chance for the report's authors to present the findings to industry participants. A couple of further comments, for those interested in this topic:
Haven't had enough on offsets yet? Good. Romm's zeroth rule of carbon offsets is that you should "do everything reasonably possible to reduce your own emissions" before buying offsets. At first blush, this reads like a memo from Obviousland, a staunch statement in favor of apple pie. Pretty much every marketer of carbon offsets heavily stresses that offset purchases should go hand-in-hand with serious attempts at conservation, and I certainly agree. So far, so good. But the rest of the post serves as a lesson in what can happen when common sense hardens into ideology. After making a bunch of points about how the worst thing you can do is actually feel good about purchasing offsets, Romm offers up Exhibit A of the wrong way to go about buying offsets: Google.
The first rule of offsets, according to Joseph Romm, is "no trees." This is a pretty good rule, as these thing go. The TerraPass offset portfolio contains no tree-planting projects, despite the fact that most consumers love trees and the fact that tree-planting projects are typically cheaper than offsets from renewable energy projects. So if trees are both consumer-friendly and cost-effective, why avoid them? There are lots of reasons, and Romm chooses to focus on one of the more minor ones: a recent study suggesting that trees outside of tropical zones actually cause a net increase in global warming by absorbing sunlight.
Joseph Romm has been running a series of "rules of the road for carbon offsets" on these pages. This is a worthwhile endeavor, and as good of an excuse as any for me to provide some shade and color to the frequently misconceived debate over offsets. Although I mostly agree with Romm's conclusions, I don't think he chose the best route to reach them. My intent is not to rebut Romm's proposed rules -- again, I (mostly) agree with all of the guidelines posted so far, even if they do contain some important errors of fact and emphasis. And more generally, I strongly support efforts to arm individuals with more information about offset quality. But the rules are framed a bit oddly, offered up as some sort of counterpoint to a lawless industry peddling easy environmental solutions to polluters run amok. The first post announces an "aim to pick a fight with those overhyping offsets."
The William J. Clinton foundation has arranged billions in financing to help a coalition of sixteen cities cut urban emissions by applying a range of energy efficiency measures to aging buildings. Efficiency measures tends to get lumped in under the heading of conservation, but they really deserve to be their own full-fledged category of solutions to global warming. If conservation is simply doing less of a polluting activity, efficiency is doing the same activity with less energy. Turning off the lights is conservation. Screwing in a compact fluorescent light bulb is efficiency. Efficiency measures deserve their own category because they are among the most important strategies for reducing emissions. Emissions reductions from efficiency projects are immediate (which is good), they are often cheap or even free (which is great), and they don't require individuals to make significant changes to behavior (which is important to quick adoption, no matter how much we might wish otherwise).
The green blogosphere generally reacted with chuckles or consternation to Planktos' announced plans to dump tons of iron into the ocean to, you know, see what happens. Gar Lipow took the article as another excuse to bash carbon offsets. To follow the logic, you first have to know why anyone would want to dump several tons of iron into the sea. Planktos hopes to demonstrate that seeding the oceans with certain nutrients is a credible way to stimulate plankton blooms. It further hopes to demonstrate that these blooms are a credible way to sequester atmospheric carbon. Carbon markets provide the incentive for this quixotic undertaking. If the experiment is successful -- a big if -- Planktos could one day tap into the many billions of dollars available for carbon reduction projects.
Virgin Blue, the Australian extension of Richard Branson's airline empire, recently launched a program to allow passengers to purchase carbon offsets when they book a flight. That's nice. But what struck me was this quote from Greenpeace's energy campaigner, Ben Pearson: Virgin should not be criticized out of hand for this scheme, but it promotes the idea that dealing with climate change is easy and cheap rather than being about the difficult task of changing consumer behavior, government policy and investment.
I sometimes joke that the one environmental topic that unites the far right and far left is a distate for carbon offsets. This, I should stress, is a joke -- overly broad, unfairly general, etc., etc.* But it is the case that the topic of carbon offsets occasionally makes for strange bedfellows. The fake controversy over Al Gore's carbon footprint is a case in point. TerraPass recently had the pleasure of being featured on Glenn Beck's CNN program (Glenn Beck of Al Gore = Hitler fame).** We were declared a crock by Sean Hannity, and we were denounced by none other than Rush Limbaugh.