In a previous post, we talked about the ethics of purchasing carbon credits as a way to offset CO2 emissions. Now that the Liberal government has announced its new carbon pricing scheme, many Canadians are looking more closely at the true cost of carbon. It’s clear that the Liberal plan doesn’t have many friends: on one hand, it’s been vilified as too onerous by opponents in several provinces. On the other hand, critics maintain that the plan adopts emission reduction targets and price minimums that are simply too low to make a substantial difference ($10 per tonne by 2018, rising to $50 in 2022). Those waiting for meaningful leadership on this issue continue to be disappointed.
Apart from the pricing issue, there’s the question of whether cap-and-trade schemes are always useful. Sometimes projects designed to sequester carbon cause significant collateral damage. Let’s take one example that’s close to home: trees planted in BC by Reckitt Benckiser (RB). This UK-based multinational operates in about 60 countries, producing health, beauty and home products. In 2006, RB started planting trees on previously-cleared land in BC, with the goal of offsetting its carbon emissions by 2017. The company was able to buy over 10,500 hectares of land and proceeded to plant a LOT of trees — over 7 million to date. Critics quickly pointed out that the project was taking place on farmland that had been removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve. They maintained that the land could be ruined for food production for hundreds of years to come. Unlike other western provinces, BC places no restriction on foreign ownership of agricultural land. There’s nothing to prevent local farmers and ranchers from being outbid by large corporations seeking to earn carbon credits.
The Suzuki Foundation has criticized the lack of permanence of such projects, as well as their failure to address the root of the problem – fossil fuel dependence. They point to other problems as well:
“…offset projects involving the destruction of halocarbon gases such as HFC-23 have been subject to numerous criticisms, including the fact that they actually result in a perverse incentive (because of the sheer volume of offsets—and profits—that they generate) for more of the ozone-depleting gas to be created. The price of offsets from these projects is also so low (due to the very high global warming potential of the gas) that they tend to flood the market and squeeze out more sustainable offset projects, like solar and wind… As with any purchase, buyers need to choose their offsets carefully, particularly as the voluntary offset market is largely unregulated. “
All of this is further complicated by the fact that any number of standards are being used by the third party auditors who certify projects. It’s difficult for the non-expert to determine how these compare, although it’s generally agreed that effective projects need to meet a specific list of criteria. The Suzuki Foundation points to The Gold Standard (http://www.goldstandard.org/) as having the highest degree of credibility globally; it specifically excludes tree-planting projects.
As our office works to achieve net-zero emissions, we’ll continue to investigate options for purchasing carbon offsets. If your workplace is on a similar quest, “buyer beware” is the only takeaway message that we can offer at present. However, there are a few links below that might help you on your way.
http://www.communitycarbonmarketplace.com/carbon_community/marketplace The Community Carbon Marketplace was launched by Cowichan Energy Alternative, and features businesses and other organizations on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. It offers an online footprint calculator, and opportunities to buy or sell carbon credits.
http://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/pubwarehouse/pdfs/29788.pdf “Carbon credits and the conservation of natural areas” by B. Freedman, G. Stinson, P. Lacoul (2009). This article, available on the National Research Council website, is a more scholarly take on the issue. It examines some of the problems related to carbon sequestration projects, as well as the factors that affect their success, and argues for the conservation of natural biodiversity as having intrinsic value. (Among other things, there’s an interesting chart that compares the effectiveness of different tree species as carbon sinks.) The scope of the article does not extend to the basic problem of fossil fuel dependence.
Purchasing Carbon Offsets This consumer guide was developed by the Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute, and is available as a downloadable PDF.
www.wwf.de/fileadmin/fm-wwf/pdf_neu/A_Comparison_of_Carbon_Offset_Standards_lang.pdf The World Wildlife Fund prepared this comparison of the various offset standards used to certify projects.