COMMENTARY | New White House Carbon Offsetting ‘Principles’ Lack Teeth

Laurie Williams

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The New White House Carbon Offsetting ‘Principles’ Lack Teeth

Originally published in and reprinted with permission of Common Dreams.

As U.S. President Joe Biden seeks to regain American leadership in the global fight against climate change, his administration has embraced using “carbon offsets” in international carbon markets.

Acknowledging widespread criticism of the reliability of these offsets, on May 28, the administration issued a “Voluntary Carbon Markets Joint Policy Statement” signed by the secretaries of the Treasury, Agriculture, and Energy, among other officials. However, nothing in the statement overcomes the inherent flaws that make carbon offsets a dangerous distraction.

The urgency of the climate crisis means that the planet does not have time to engage in illusory market-based trading schemes that pretend to counterbalance—rather than actually reduce—greenhouse gases emissions.

The Administration’s Policy Statement lays out a set of aspirational “principles” for certification of carbon credits to allegedly ensure they “meet credible atmospheric integrity standards and represent real decarbonization”:

  • Additional. The activity would not have occurred in the absence of the incentives of the crediting mechanism and is not required by law or regulation.
  • Unique. One credit corresponds to only one tonne of carbon dioxide (or its equivalent) reduced or removed from the atmosphere and is not double-issued.
  • Real and Quantifiable. Claimed emissions reductions or removals represent genuine atmospheric impact that is determined in a transparent and replicable manner using robust, credible methodologies. Relevant activities are designed to prevent emissions from occurring, being shifted, or intensifying beyond their boundaries as a result of the activity (‘leakage’).
  • Validation and verification. Activity design is validated, and results are verified, by a qualified, accredited, independent third party.
  • Permanence of greenhouse gas benefits. The emissions removed or reduced will be kept out of the atmosphere for a specified period of time during which any credited results that are released back into the atmosphere are fully remediated.
  • Robust baselines. Baselines for emissions reduction and removal activities are based on rigorous methodologies that avoid over-crediting, prioritizing the use of performance benchmarks…

However, this list of goals highlights why reliance on carbon credits has only produced illusory benefits and counterproductive results.

The Biden administration is not proposing enforcement mechanisms that would ensure these core qualities are reflected in international credit transactions, because such mechanisms do not exist. Without enforcement these “guardrails” are merely a wish list, tantamount to a store combatting shoplifting only by putting up signs that say, “Do Not Steal.”

It is also clear that the amount of money these carbon markets are poised to generate, bolstered by Biden administration support, is enormous. The temptation to game a multi-billion-dollar system that has no enforceable rules is overwhelming and will help keep us addicted to business-as-usual emissions.

At the same time, the urgency of the climate crisis means that the planet does not have time to engage in illusory market-based trading schemes that pretend to counterbalance—rather than actually reduce—greenhouse gases emissions.

Experts who have studied carbon offsets, like Barbara Haya at University of California, Berkeley, have found they are inherently flawed for a host of reasons and cannot be reformed. A clear indication that carbon offsets are unfixable is that virtually all carbon offset projects created to date are built on activities that were already happening, for reasons other than the generally low and volatile price of offset payments. And, to date, no one has even proposed a reliable way to distinguish those activities that would have happened anyway. In addition, since carbon offsets must be based on activities that are not legally required, they create a perverse incentive to delay appropriate regulation.

With forest projects, these problems are compounded by their impermanence, which is heightened by warming-accelerated wildfires. In addition, the integrity of forest projects is easily undercut by demand shifting. If one forest is preserved but demand for wood is not reduced, another forest will be cut.

Together, these factors highlight that the administration’s wish list of guardrails is completely out of touch with the reality of carbon offsets. As California is discovering, reliance upon its highly touted carbon credit market is resulting in far more emissions than an effective regulatory program.

The administration should find the courage to reverse course and acknowledge that carbon offsets are a dangerous and damaging distraction. Offsets undermine our ability to adopt effective strategies to achieve our climate goals. These include ending fossil fuel subsidies and supporting enforceable regulations. Other key provisions would be transparent polluter-pays carbon pricing, programs to ensure energy affordability during a transition away from fossil fuels, public investments in clean energy transmission and transit, and international agreements with easily measurable results. Effective U.S. leadership would mean developing a national climate law worthy of the moment and building public support for its enactment. This country’s environmental laws have transformed our nation and been influential elsewhere. They should be our inspiration.

We understand that carbon credits seductively offer to harness powerful market forces and raise money for climate-positive projects. However, this siren’s call has all the integrity of a Ponzi scheme. In short, as the U.S. has repeatedly experienced, meaningful reductions in pollution require the inescapable hard work of designing programs with reliably measurable outcomes and enforcing them.

Laurie Williams recently retired after 35 years as an attorney at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Williams is a consultant on climate policy for PEER.

Allan Zabel recently retired after 35 years as an attorney at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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