Cost Just the Beginning of Offsets’ Problems
July 27th’s San Francisco Chronicle includes an article David Baker on Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s failing ClimateSmart whcih so far has collected just $2.6 million to run a $9.7 million program. And what does that program do exactly? Baker reports:
People who sign up for the program pay a monthly fee - usually less than $3 - to offset greenhouse gas emissions from the power plants that supply their electricity. Most of the money funds forestry projects that pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. While other, smaller companies - such as TerraPass in San Francisco - offer similar services, ClimateSmart was the first such program from a utility.
While Baker does a fine job finding many sources that question the cost-effectiveness of the program, Baker then glosses over a more fundamental issue. Do carbon offsets even reduce carbon emissions at all? Studies have been conducted around the world on this issue, and the verdict is in: Carbon offset programs are a gigantic failure. The Washington Post recently investigated a local project on the Chicago Climate Exchange and found:
In the western Virginia town of Christiansburg, the operators of a landfill sell carbon offsets tied to a project that captures methane, a powerful greenhouse pollutant, and burn it in a tall orange flare. They’ve made $43,000 on the Chicago Climate Exchange in just a couple of months.
But that project was put in long before the offsets were sold and for a different reason: to keep dangerous gases from accumulating in a capped landfill. So if the offset market dried up completely?
Nothing would change.
Baker does do a fine job of listing the four projects PG&E is trying to offset their emissions with, three of which protect forests and one that invests in cow manure, but what happens if a wildfire (known to happen in California) burns PG&E carbon offsetted trees into the atmosphere? Do they have to then re-purchase offsets for all the carbon that just got released back into the atmosphere? Or, like the landfill offset project above, does nothign really change at all? Baker’s readers deserve to know.