Friday, August 8, 2008

Carbon Credits or Indulgences?

I'm probably going to take some flak on this one. It seems I can't do anything anymore without the opportunity to "offset" my "carbon impact." Signing up for a race? For a $1.50 more, I can offset the carbon impact of my participation in said race. I can now subscribe to wind generated power for my home for $15/month. But this does not make one iota difference in my payment to National Grid. It is essentially a voluntary "green tax" in addition to my regular electric bill with a promise from organizations that I completely fail to understand how the equivalent of my electricity usage will be wind generated somewhere in the country. What if one million people subscribed this year? Would tens of thousands of wind generators spontaneously spout across the nation like mushrooms on cow pies after a thunderstorm? It takes years and years for this capability to grow. Vermont, claiming to be one of the greenest states in the union, repeatedly denies permits for wind farms. Now I hear how green the democratic convention is going to be in Denver. The whole think is going to miraculously be offset somehow.

One way carbon credit proponents say emissions are offset is by planting trees. Where are all these trees being planted? Who's planting them? Will they be there 100 years from now or will they get harvested? It takes decades for a tree to begin harvesting significant carbon from the atmosphere.

So when we buy carbon credits or pay for offsets, where does all this money go? Somebody out there is undoubtedly getting rich off this. This brings back some things I remembered from medieval history: the practice of indulgences by the Catholic church. I found this from Washington State University that summed it up nicely:

"Church officials argued that clergy were doing more good works then they needed to; they had, you might say, more than good works in their spiritual accounts than they had sins to pay for. Why not sell them? So selling the good works of the church was precisely what the church did. With the approval of the pope, individual bishops could sell indulgences which more or less paid off any temporal punishment or good works that the individual believer had accumulated in the previous year. It substituted the good works of the Catholic clergy for the good works required of the individual believer. Proof of this substitution was in the indulgence itself, which was a piece of paper, like a piece of money or a check, that certified that the good works of the clergy had paid off the "good works debt" of the individual believer."

This sure smells like what is going on right now. The similarity is even spooky. There's a different type of fear mongering going on with folks capitalizing on it. You might call this the Green Church. Now don't get me wrong, our environment is a delicate thing, and there is no doubt human impact is changing our environment. We can be doing a better job now. But this whole carbon credit thing lacks transparency and reeks of fraud. If paying offsets makes your conscience feel better, by all means do it. But I will hold off until somebody can explain the complete money path to me, how quickly my "offset" is instantiated, and how buying "green" electricity today puts more solar or wind power on the grid today, not 20 years from now. For now, I will continue to live frugally, as I always have, with its inherent reduced impact on the environment.


Colin R said...

how buying "green" electricity today puts more solar or wind power on the grid today, not 20 years from now.

The fastest way to change things is with money, right? Voluntarily consuming green electricity increases the demand for it, which almost surely increases the supply over time. The feedback loop is hopefully shorter than twenty years, but even if it's not, you're helping to steer the energy market in the "right direction."

It will probably happen anyway -- it's not like one man's $15 makes a big difference. But the same could be said of all your choices.

Hill Junkie said...

I agree that voting with our dollars effects change. What I am skeptical of, at least right now in this period of transition to green technologies, is that spending dollars on green really sends my dollars where it makes a difference and not just funding an organization that is "bringing awareness" to the problem.

You may have heard a few years ago how the Tyler Hamilton Foundation raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for MS. Not one dollar went to research. It all was used to run the foundation. When pressed on this issue, the foundation said they never intended to fund research, but only bring awareness to the problem.

The glossy green electricity brochers look nice, but they are very weak on how my money a) is invested in green infrastructure, b) who's building it and where, c) how viable and sustainable it is, and d) how it offsets my local carbon based consumption (I might be just offsetting somebody elses, which is not all bad). I suspect under the credits model, very little of the money actually plants trees or builds new wind generators. One of the unintended consequences of carbon credits is islands of pollution. Buying credits is like buying the right to be a polluter.

As long as fossil fuel is cheap relative to alternative energy, I don't see enough Americans volunteering dollars to the cause. It will take government mandates (unlikely or decades long process) or huge advances in bringing cost of alternative energy production down. Photovoltaics are one of my favorites. There's lots of research going on to figure out how to build low cost, high efficiency solar cells. The stuff we put into space might be 30% efficient. Really cheap cells only 3%. We have to bridge this gap somehow. If we had cheap 30% efficient cells, this would be huge. Personally, I think our gov't should be investing more in this area. One way to fund it is with consumption tax on utility bills. Same for battery technology - consumption tax on gasoline. Those who consume the most will feel a proportionate impact on the environment and pay their share to offset this impact when new technology becomes viable. Buy making alternative engery cheaper than fossil fuel based energy, everybody would flock to it. I'm not ready to drink the carbon credits Kool-Aid yet.