Monday, January 07, 2008

Carbon Offset Programs

Started this post on 12/20/07 so can't berate myself too much for not getting hopping on this sooner. Finally finished A Consumer's Guide to Retail Offset Providers, a handy guide but a bit of a slog to get through. I appreciated that the consulting firm who wrote the report, Trexler Climate + Energy Services, Inc., was very upfront about their corporate sponsors (Clif Bar, Interface, and Stonyfield Farm) and their related activities regarding some of the offset providers featured in the report. Overall, the report appeared very balanced with regards to the pros and cons of purchasing carbon offsets as an individual.

Basically, while the report gave a very concise overview of the issues involved in purchasing carbon offsets, the authors could not say with any certainty that buying carbon offsets as an individual would make an impact. As the report states on page 4:
Consumers often do not find the information they need to make effective choices among retail offset suppliers. In the absence of a clear quality standard for offsets, a reliable provider certification process, or effective disclosure and verification protocols, the retail offsets market remains a "consumer beware" market.
It was helpful, however, in defining the issues for the lay person and the glossary of terms found on pages vii and viii were incredibly valuable. They posed that these questions can be asked to a prospective offset provider:

  • Do your offsets result from specific emissions reduction or sequestration projects?
  • Do you use an objective standard to ensure the additionality and quality of the offsets you sell?
  • Can you show me that the projects in your portfolio would not have happened without the GHG [Greenhouse Gas] offset market?
  • Have your offsets been validated against a particular third-party standard by a credible source?
  • Are you selling offsets that will accrue in the future? If so, how long into the future, and can you explain why you need to "forward sell" the offsets?
  • Can you demonstrate that your offsets are not being sold to multiple buyers?
  • What are you doing to educate your buyers about global warming and the need for global warming policy?
"Additionality" as defined in the provided glossary refers to whether the emission reduction occurs because of the offset market and efforts specifically designed to create the reduction, or if the reduction occurs because of "business-as-usual" practices; essentially, if the reductions occur as a result of practices that would have caused them to happen anyway, then they are considered "business-as-usual," or "baseline" emissions. Additionality would occur because of special projects initiated for the specific purpose of reducing emissions outside of normal efforts taken to reduce emissions. The three things I saw, based on the inset box on Page 3 (Box 3), that seemed crucial to making the distinction were:

  • Permanence: The offsets would not be subject to potential reversal in the future (as can occur with carbon sequestration projects where the trees might die by fire or pest infestation).
  • Ownership: Ownership of the reductions would be clear, making it less likely that the same offsets might be claimed and sold multiple times.
  • Registration: The offsets would be registered to provide a paper trail and to reduce the possibility that the same offsets might be sold multiple times.
The issue of offsets being sold multiple times was a recurring topic in the report, as was the issue of future benefit offsets, those offsets being sold as an offset for a project that had yet to see fruition. As the report further states on pages 3-4, "To really neutralize the emissions of your travel and lifestyle, there needs to be a clear conceptual link between the fact that you're purchasing offsets and the generation of those offsets."

Lack of clear information on the providers' websites was also noted as a problem. Ultimately, of the 30 retail offset providers evaluated for the report, about 3/4 had a cumulative score of less than 5.0 (on a 1-10 scale, 1o being the highest possible score), and about 1/3 had scores below 3.0. On page 15 they give the reasons for these low scores as:
  • A basic lack of information and transparency
  • A lack of attention to offset quality
  • Insufficient information about the projects used to generate offsets
  • Lack of effort in educating the public about global warming
I got the sense that, while for corporations and large manufacturing concerns the benefits of offset were more readily apparent and beneficial, for individual buyers it was more of a gamble. Personally, I would be wary of any provider until some third-party certification is standardized and followed.

Finally, the report emphasizes that the individual purchaser of carbon offsets, beyond the questions they pose as a starting point to ask providers, is to ask these questions of yourself:
  • What steps have you taken to reduce your own emissions? If the opportunity to go carbon neutral by spending a few dollars online becomes an excuse to not think about what else you can do at home or elsewhere, or lets you feel that it is acceptable to emit more emissions than you might otherwise, then buying offsets may have a negative result.
  • In choosing a retail offsets provider, have you paid attention to the quality of the offsets you are purchasing, sot that you can credibly claim that you are carbon neutral?
  • Is going carbon neutral the beginning of your global warming mitigation journey, or the end? The opportunity to go carbon neutral at an individual level should not become an excuse to avoid thinking about the larger problem of global warming policy. Addressing global warming will require much more than individuals and businesses going carbon neutral.
  • What are you doing to leverage your efforts to go carbon neutral? Rewarding with your dollars companies offering carbon neutral products and services? Using your carbon neutrality as a platform to push for global warming policy by your elected representatives? Without public policy, individuals' carbon neutrality cannot solve the problem. Indeed, a key contribution of the retail offsets market may be to promote public understanding and ultimately public policy.
That last bullet point, I think, brings the whole issue into focus. Carbon offsets and their purchase by individuals may only be symbolic at this point, but education and a push to change public perception and policy about global warming should be the ultimate goal of this activity.
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