For much of this year, it’s seemed almost everywhere Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger went he signed yet another carbon-trading agreement as part of his ballyhooed effort to lead the world’s battle against global warming.
California now has agreements with Great Britain, three Canadian provinces, the Australian state of Victoria and the American states of Utah, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico and Washington. Not to mention 10 Eastern states that signed up early on. The European Union already has a carbon trading system in place.
These things work in two basic ways. One goes like this: If you run a business that spews greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and you don’t want to invest in expensive equipment to clean up your act, you can partner with companies that produce less gases than they’re entitled to or have cut their own emissions. These companies possess so-called “carbon credits” which can be bought by polluters to offset their emissions. It’s a way for the cleanest companies to offset their cleanup costs.
The second method is for polluters to buy carbon credits held by owners of trees that naturally absorb greenhouse gases. Part of the deal is that these trees may then never be cut down.
Schwarzenegger has personally used this second method to “offset” the gases produced by his fleet of Hummers, motorcycles and other vehicles, plus his portion of pollution spewed by the corporate jet in which he shares flight time. Some airline passengers are now being offered the option of doing the same thing if they feel guilty about side effects of the jet fuel burned by the plane they’re riding.
This entire concept was pioneered by the lead smog-fighting agency in Southern California, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, covering Los Angeles, Orange and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. For years, there’s been trading in “smog credits” that allow some companies to continue polluting when others clean up their act more than they have to.
In Southern California, though, smog standards keep getting tighter and tighter each year, with businesses allowed to produce less and less emissions. That way, there is continued improvement each year even as the commerce goes on.
But so far there is no worldwide standard for steady diminution of greenhouse gas production. Yes, some treaties call for a return to 1990 levels of emitting CO2. But there’s no enforcement mechanism like the fines the South Coast AQMD can levy in its area.
And with some methods of carbon absorption, there’s always the question of whether that absorption was already going to take place anyway, regardless of any money paid for carbon credits. For instance, Schwarzenegger bought a credit in the Fred M. Van Eck Forest in Humboldt County, owned by a foundation affiliated with Purdue University. Buying credits in a forest preserve only makes sense if there previously existed some plan to log the forest.
Otherwise, there is no net diminution of greenhouse gases no matter how much Schwarzenegger and others pay for carbon credits. Which would make the whole system a scam.
A better way to cut greenhouse gases would be to plant new forests with money paid for carbon credits. But saplings take years before they absorb more than minuscule amounts of carbon, so hundreds of little trees would have to be planted just to offset Schwarzenegger’s personal pollution.
Where California is concerned, all these efforts were spawned by AB32, the 2006 law demanding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the state. That law did not mandate carbon credit trading, but allows it. The law gives the state Air Resources Board the task of setting standards of all kinds for cutting CO2 emissions, but the board is now in turmoil and a long way from settling on a solid carbon trading design.
The one thing the ARB must do is make certain that any carbon trading produces a net benefit to the anti-global warming effort. Unless standards are tightened each year and unless there is enforcement to make certain that no one buys “credits” for gases that would have been absorbed anyhow, there’s no point to this whole exercise.
It’s true, as Schwarzenegger’s many compacts with other governments around the world suggest, that it makes little difference where greenhouse gas offsets occur. Reductions in CO2 emissions in Somalia or Somerset, England, do as much good as cuts next door.
But compacts with other states and countries can only work if there actually are cuts and if the claims of faraway businesses to have cleaned up their acts can be verified.
Which means it’s far from determined just yet whether all Schwarzenegger’s agreements will actually help slow global warming or whether they are themselves mere hot air allowing him to look good while not improving anything.