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A billion dollars of bogus carbon credits

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A story in today's Vancouver Sun is disturbing, arguing that B.C. could make $1 billion from selling carbon offsets once the Western Climate Initiative gets underway. The projects are mostly in forest management and conservation, meaning less cutting and more sequestration of carbon in the forests themselves. The conservation part is undoubtedly a good thing -- we need to manage our forests better because they are the only technology we know of to suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

The problem arises in the idea that we can sell these good deeds to companies in other parts of Canada or the U.S. who are not reducing their emissions, so that they can claim that they are. That is, B.C. should engage in conservation to reduce emissions AND those companies should also be reducing their emissions. Furthermore, it is a huge mistake to exchange emissions reductions over a thirty-year period, embodied in forests (which could burn down, be devastated by pine beetles or be clear-cut a few decades hence), for current emissions from burning fossil fuels.

The widely-accepted target of 350 parts per million encompasses this debate. We are currently at 390 ppm, and need to get back down to 350. To get there we need to stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible, AND we need to engage in tree planting, forest conservation and better management practices to suck up that excess atmospheric carbon. Offsets are basically a sham if we accept this framework because we need to do that stuff anyway. The only true offset would be a new technology that literally did suck carbon dioxide out of the air and bury it underground, forever. Such a technology does not yet exist.

The other projects mentioned include a cement company switching to biomass instead of fossil fuels, and energy efficiency retrofits in trucks. Again, these are projects that should be happening anyway if we are to have a habitable planet a few decades hence. One other project is just plain dubious, an energy company with improved "conservation" of natural gas at drilling sites. In this case, a company that is engaged in putting carbon in the atmosphere could get paid for a change in operational practices that somehow puts slightly less carbon in the atmosphere.

Perhaps more disturbing is that the protagonist of the story is UBC's James Tansey, Executive Director of the ISIS Research Centre of the Sauder School of Business. That makes it sound like just some interesting academic research being reported. But Tansey is also the ED of Offsetters, a company engaged in developing offset projects of the very type mentioned in the article. It is not necessarily the case that there is a conflict of interest here, but a probing journalist ought to ask what role Offsetters has in these projects, and whether Tansey stands to personally profit from the $1 billion in offsets being "researched."

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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