Pro and cons of the 'carbon market'

The 'carbon market'

If you’ve taken an airline flight recently, you may have noticed the airline offers to offset the carbon emitted during your flight for a small fee.

The rational goes like this. You have a flight you cannot avoid (relative in the hospital or just a quarterly meeting for instance). That flight is going to increase global warming. You can measure how much the flight contributes to global warming and you can pay someone else to do a project that would reduce carbon emissions by the same amount. The project cancels out the flight and you don’t have to feel (as) guilty. If you check the box, you’ve participate in the “carbon market.”

At its most basic, the carbon market has three stages:

1. The project—A popular project right now is providing efficient cookstoves to women in developing nations.

2. The third-party certifier, who examines the project to see if it actually reduces carbon emissions and registers the carbon credit so it cannot be sold more than once. Verra and the Gold Standard are some of the largest certifiers/registries.

3. Certified and registered carbon offsets are then sold by the project to a wholesale or retail storefront. The retailer then sells carbon offsets to individuals or businesses, such as an airline (Air Canada works with Chooose and Westjet is working with less.ca).

Environmentalists are not enthusiastic about carbon offsets. The first generation offsets were a huge disappointment. They mostly consisted of planting trees. Trees actually do suck up and store carbon. However, you not only have to plant a tree, you have to guarantee over its lifetime (which is long) that no one is going to chop it down on purpose or burn it up by accident.

Because of stricter certification, credits today are more trustworthy, but it’s still a work in progress.

Then there’s the fact there’s no way around your flight generating real carbon emissions. Carbon credits are not magic tokens that make carbon disappear. The world as a whole is generating too much carbon. There is no alternative other than drastic reduction. Finally, it is distressing to think that buying a carbon credit could be seen as giving permission to pollute.

However, the voluntary carbon market (the one you participated in when you bought your flight) is expected to grow to $10 to $40 billion (US) by 2030.

Why? Offering carbon credits provides investments for new technologies and for technology transfer to developing nations. Tesla makes about 10% of its income selling carbon credits gained by making electric cars.

Rich nations generated their wealth by industrializing faster than the rest of the world. Early industrialization means rich nations, over time, have put more carbon into the atmosphere. Developing countries need to reach higher income levels (infant mortality, indoor air pollution, lack of vaccines and sanitation kill more people by far than global warming) but the world can’t afford for them to follow a Dickensian, coal-fueled path.

Developing nations have already proved they can leapfrog outdated technologies. Cell phones have reached people without ever stringing wires for landlines. Mobile banking has taken off without brick and mortar banks. Carbon markets could provide a mechanism for wealthy countries to fund developing countries as they leapfrog fossil fuels.

Trading carbon credits can get pretty complex. Companies can buy carbon credits to cancel out emissions, but they can also buy them to hold, anticipating carbon credits will be more expensive in the future.

Carbon credits can be traded like stocks. A full carbon market can include all of the complex and risky vehicles available in the stock market.

Do I buy carbon credits? Sometimes. I feel my energy is best spent promoting education and pushing for political change. I have used online calculators to estimate my family’s carbon footprint but instead of buying credits, I work harder to reduce our footprint.

This includes less driving, resetting the thermostat and practicing thoughtful consumerism. However, I cannot get around the fact my extended family is 2,000 kilometres away.

When we buy airline tickets, we pay for carbon credits. To me it's a reminder air travel remains an issue—and it supports the carbon market.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Kristy Dyer has worked in the sustainability field for more than 10 years, including work with solar energy in New Mexico and cleantech in Silicon Valley. After she moved to the Okanagan, she ran a small business, Teaspoon Energy, doing energy audits of large houses. Most recently, she worked for a B.C. business doing carbon footprints for tourism organizations.

She has written about sustainability since 2012. You can find her columns archived at TeaspoonEnergy.blogspot.com.

Dyer has a background in physics and astronomy, and has occasionally been caught trying to impersonate an engineer.

A long-time member of First Things First, Penticton’s local climate change group, whose goals are to educate and lobby for solutions to the climate crisis, Dyer is honoured to live, work and play in the unceded, ancestral and traditional territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation.

You can contact her at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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