Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Problem with Carbon Credits

Although it might seem like a good idea for promoting sustainable practices, carbon credits are wracked with pitfalls and shortcomings.

The carbon credit is a concept developed under the Kyoto Protocol agreement to provide countries who create excessive amounts of pollution/ waste with a way of ‘offsetting’ it to countries that produce much less.

For example, if one company emits more CO2 into the atmosphere than is permitted under the Kyoto agreement targets, they must buy credits from other companies that are producing less pollution/ waste.

The result is that as much pollution/ waste as is allowed under the agreement will be created, as companies that produce too much will just buy what they need to offset their emissions, and environmentally unsustainable ways, from companies that are actually making a difference by conserving energy and reducing their total pollution/ waste.

One of the major problems with the ‘carbon credit’ or ‘carbon neutral’ process is that it does not deter people from abusing the environment. Instead, it allows those rich enough to afford credit transactions, payments for polluting, to continue leading wasteful lifestyles (jet fuel, exhaust, noise, other pollution, etc.) without the guilt.

While some might say that paying back what you’ve taken from the Earth is a commendable gesture, it is important to look to the cultural and social message this sends to people, in particular the next generation.

When employees, the rich and others who can afford to, or can’t afford not to, unflinchingly lead resource-heavy lifestyles, they promote a consumer culture of wastefulness to others.

Owning SUVs and flying to Mexico for a vacation with the kids, then turning around and throwing a few bucks at environmental research, sends a message to others that it is okay to pollute so long as you’re rich enough to afford to.

Carbon capture has also become the latest celebrity fad, according to a Georgia Straight feature article, with artists like Coldplay and Pearl Jam announcing that they will offset (pay a fee for) the environmental impact of their albums (plastic, shipping, manufacturing, etc.).

On the bright side, making those who have enough money to abuse the environment give a bit back is not such a bad idea.

Two professors from the University of British Columbia, Hadi Dowlatabadi from the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability and ethics and business professor James Tansey, began Offsetters, a carbon-neutralizing company, in hopes to get big polluters and small polluters alike to give back to the environment.

This online business mainly serves pollution bills to people who travel extensively for business. Simply go online and tell Offsetters, partnered with WestJet, how far you travelled and they will tell you how much you owe them … or is it the environment?

The money given to Offsetters is then invested in “projects that work to counteract the environmental footprint caused by air travel or any number of other offending practices,” according to an online article in Backbone.

It looks like a good idea, it really does. Only, does it prevent people from flying?

Not at all.

The number of flights in and out of the YVR (Vancouver International Airport) have been rising steadily over the last few years, to the chagrin of Richmond residents who have to listen to 747s flying over their heads every day and night.

So what would be a better alternative to Offsetters and other ‘carbon neutral’ promoting organizations?

Perhaps, what is most needed is a mass dissemination of the concepts of conservation, preservation and sustainable development.

If you’re business insists you fly twice a month, insist that you don’t have to work there.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of saying no to the temptation of being wasteful.

Enough truisms for one day.


Mahima said...

hi.. i was working on a project on carbon credits when google threw up this post of yours. while your spirit of environment protection is commendable beyond doubt, i sort of dont agree with your criticism of carbon credits. correct me if im wrong but you seem to imply that the fact that companies buy credits to sidestep actual reduction is a shortcoming of the CDM market. while i agree that the the market is plagued with quite a few pitfalls, im not too sure if this is one of them. even from the point of view of those whose heart, like yours, bleeds for the earth. see, if one entity is buying credits, there has to, by default, be someone selling them too. where did these credits originate from? there is no other way to do that but to reduce carbon emissions. so as long as the requisite amount of emissions are being reduced by someone, somewhere on the planet for this company to trade in, the earth DOES benefit whether or not it is THIS particular company bringing it about. it is anyday a step up from no regulation and no CDM market to incentivise pollution control, right?

BC Guy said...

Canada's federal government plans to push Canadian corporations into buying carbon credits under the so-called "Clean Development Mechanism" (CDM), a system established under the Kyoto Protocol by which companies in rich countries buy "rights to pollute" from companies in poor countries. The poor-country companies, in exchange, promise to give up their own greenhouse-gas producing activities.

CDM projects will certainly succeed in harming the environment and the livelihoods of millions of farmers, fishermen and indigenous peoples in the Third World.

To read about CDM projects in Latin America and elsewhere go to: