Before I get into this weeks episode it is important to recognise the Government's acknowledgment of the importance of all genuine sequestration will be recognised from 2025. While this is great to see it will be interesting to get the detail.
This week on Factum-Agri a perspective from an American scientist on carbon offsets and international carbon offset programs. As we all know here in New Zealand many companies and organisations are using carbon offsets through the ETS, so what is the view of an academic in California on this subject?
Barbara Haya is a Research Fellow at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. She carries out research on carbon trading programs and the effectiveness of carbon offsets.
The Paris Agreement, the big UN agreement in 2015 that provides a framework for nearly every country in the world to try to control their planet-warming emissions. But before the Paris Agreement, there was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
The Kyoto Protocol was the first main international global climate agreement under the UN that mandated that some countries needed to reduce their emissions. The Protocol had some big holes in it - for one thing, the world’s biggest emitter at the time – the US – never got on board. But it did require some other big industrialised countries to start cutting their emissions. “Industrialised countries argued greenhouse gases are well mixed in the atmosphere. It doesn't matter where we reduce emissions, so if it's cheaper to reduce emissions anywhere in the world, we should be able to do that.”
So say you’re Germany, a well-off country that has agreed to lower its emissions, you could build a bunch of wind and solar farms to take some of your coal plants offline, but you notice it would be cheaper to build that same clean energy in India, and take some of their coal plants offline - and since a CO2 molecule warms the planet the same in Germany as in India, the planet wouldn’t notice the difference.
“So this carbon offset program was created that allowed industrialised countries to invest in carbon reduction projects anywhere in the world, and use the resulting credits towards their domestic emissions reductions targets.”
"So if Germany emitted, say, 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide more than they promised they would, they could buy 10,000 tons’ worth of carbon offsets, and there you have it, mission accomplished, they can say that they’ve met their climate goal."
"But of course this only works if we’re sure these offset projects are actually keeping carbon out of the air. So to keep track, every offset program has a “registry.”
“Offset registries write the rules. They define a set of project types that are allowed to participate, eligibility criterion, and methods for estimating emissions reductions. It's really important that the offset income is really making reductions happen that wouldn't have happened otherwise. And that's called additionality.”
“Most of the forest projects are being credited not for doing something, but for not doing something. Not deforesting and not aggressively harvesting. And that means it's very easy to tell a story of a high risk of deforestation and harvesting, so you can generate lots of credits early on.
“If we make the wrong assumptions in calculating offsets, buyers are going to think they’ve “canceled out” their emissions, when really they’re still warming the planet. I think offsets are sort of a perfect storm for poor quality. The buyer wants cheap credits, the seller wants to sell more credits for doing less, the third party verifier wants to be hired again, and the registries themselves are competing with one another. They're in the business of generating credits. So you don't have future generations or the climate at the table in this market, and I think that there's a real need for researchers to shine a really bright light on what's really happening on the ground to make sure that we aren't just reducing emissions on paper.”
Can you emit carbon and then pay someone else and be absolved from being responsible for your emissions? That’s a great question and one that I keep thinking about here in New Zealand, or in our case it’s large emitters buying up farm land to offset their own business activity. It does not drive real change, it moves the problem to the land which negatively impacts food security and this country’s biggest export check and negatively impacts our rural communities. I don’t see how the current ETS settings in this country – which allows 100% of off setting is going to benefit anyone in the long-term.
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Angus Kebbell is the Producer at Tailwind Media. You can contact him here.