California Forum

Another View: EU’s failing carbon market a lesson for California

The analysis of the EU carbon market enacted under the Kyoto Protocol found that only 14 percent of the claimed greenhouse gas reduction offsets under the program were even “plausible,” resulting in the equivalent of about 600 million additional metric tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.
The analysis of the EU carbon market enacted under the Kyoto Protocol found that only 14 percent of the claimed greenhouse gas reduction offsets under the program were even “plausible,” resulting in the equivalent of about 600 million additional metric tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. New York Times file

California’s Global Warming Solutions Act created a market-based effort to achieve a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, following the lead of the European Union carbon market. A new report out of Europe serves as a warning that California should reverse course on relying on the market to reduce carbon emissions (“Far-reaching climate bills warrant approval”; editorials, Aug. 28).

The analysis of the EU carbon market enacted under the Kyoto Protocol found that only 14 percent of the claimed greenhouse gas reduction offsets under the program were even “plausible,” resulting in the equivalent of about 600 million additional metric tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

It’s no surprise. Offsets exist so that polluters can keep releasing greenhouse gas into the atmosphere by looking for reductions elsewhere, thereby “offsetting” their own ongoing emissions. These polluters use forestation programs, methane-capture projects or other strategies to avoid cutting their own pollution. The use of offsets has sent pollution brokers scrambling to find offset sources anywhere and everywhere, real or not, so they could skim profits off these mostly phantom transactions.

The most common failure of the European offset program centered on “additionality.” Offsets relied upon by polluters must be “additional” to current efforts; that is, industry shouldn’t be able to get offsets from forests that were never going to be cut down or from reduction technologies that were already installed.

But that’s exactly what is happening with the EU’s program. And it’s happening in California, too.

The California Air Resources Board manages California’s offset program and, just like in the EU, any offset must be “additional.” But ARB took steps to undermine its own “additional” requirement when it enacted a policy to allow for offsets to be generated retroactively as far back as 2005.

For example, one of the offset sources listed on ARB’s website is the Pungo River Forest Conservation Project in North Carolina. That project was registered as an offset provider in June 2012 and, according to its last offset verification report, generated 15,733 tons of greenhouse gas offsets in 2014. However, the owners of the Pungo River Forest area had the forest declared a permanent conservation zone back in 2003.

Similarly, a recent article by CALmatters showcases a Pennsylvania factory farm that installed a methane digester on the 30,000-hog facility back in 2011 to generate electricity for its own use. The project was largely funded by a USDA grant and generates enough electricity to run the entire facility, saving the operation about $70,000 per year.

Even though the methane digester was installed to generate electricity, California polluters still looked to it as yet another source of offsets to allow them to keep emitting greenhouse gases. What about additionality? The owner of the farm has gone on record saying he would have installed the digester because of his own energy savings even without offsets.

Market-based schemes to address carbon pollution are no solution at all. California should instead bring a greenhouse gas source-by-source regulatory program online with strict and decreasing emissions limits to combat climate change.

Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch, a national advocacy organization. Adam Scow is California director of Food & Water Watch.

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