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Some Inconvenient Truths
The Financial Times has uncovered some stumbling blocks on the road to carbon neutrality. Its multi-part report starts with a useful tutorial:
Offsetting is a fundamental principle of the Kyoto protocol – an agreement among more than 160 countries that came into force in 2005. It allows developed nations to meet emissions reduction targets by funding projects such as wind farms or solar panels in poorer countries through the so-called “clean development mechanism”. This awards such projects “carbon credits”. The credits, which can be traded on the international carbon markets, sell for between $5 and $15 (€3.66-€11, £2.50-£7.50) per tonne of carbon dioxide. To aid comparison, other greenhouse gases – such as nitrous oxide and methane – are measured as equivalents of CO2.
Carbon markets have grown rapidly since they were brought into being by the Kyoto treaty and the start of the European Union’s emissions trading scheme in 2005, under which companies were issued with tradeable permits to emit carbon. The price of carbon in the EU scheme more than halved last year after it was revealed that more permits had been issued than were needed in the first phase, from 2005 to 2007.
In the first nine months of 2006, according to the United Nations and World Bank, up to $22bn of carbon was traded. About $18bn of this was through the EU’s emissions trading scheme, and $3bn through the Kyoto mechanism.
The third element, the voluntary market, is where most offsets are bought. Businesses participating in this are not bound to reduce emissions, unlike companies under the EU trading scheme or governments under Kyoto. In 2005, the World Bank estimates, the voluntary market formed under 1 per cent of global dealings, trading fewer than 10m tonnes of carbon a year. But by 2010, the consultancy ICF International forecasts it will grow 40-fold to be worth $4bn.
Most companies going carbon-neutral use intermediaries to buy offsets on their behalf.
According to the FT, however, all has not gone well:
The FT investigation found:
■ Widespread instances of people and organisations buying worthless credits that do not yield any reductions in carbon emissions.
■ Industrial companies profiting from doing very little – or from gaining carbon credits on the basis of efficiency gains from which they have already benefited substantially.
■ Brokers providing services of questionable or no value.
■ A shortage of verification, making it difficult for buyers to assess the true value of carbon credits.
■ Companies and individuals being charged over the odds for the private purchase of European Union carbon permits that have plummeted in value because they do not result in emissions cuts.
In the end, the FT editors conclude that it's time to join the Pigou club:
The Kyoto protocol to fight climate change expires in 2012. The shape of a successor treaty is still in doubt, but one aspect seems certain: carbon trading will play a major role. A Financial Times investigation today reveals that carbon markets leave much room for unverifiable manipulation. Taxes are better, partly because they are less vulnerable to such improprieties.
I'm waiting to hear a good case made to the contrary.
UPDATE: More on the topic, from Greg Mankiw and from Felix Salmon.
UPDATE AGAIN: Yet more at Reviving Economics: Here, here, and here.
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