Thursday, December 14, 2006

Carbon Trading, Caps, and Offsets--another market driven scam?

There's a "green" gift suggestion making the rounds this holiday season that's touted to be a way of making a difference. Called carbon offsetting, it's a way of contributing to renewable energy in an amount equal to how much carbon you contribute yearly to global warming.

So, I have a question. Does carbon offsetting actually do anything besides assuage a little guilt about killing the planet? I mean, look at the term they chose for this scheme. Offset, not reduce or stop.

It seems to me to be at best an attempt at payoff, or little more than a financial incentive to continue supporting destruction, but I'm sure there must be something more to it than that, at least from all the hype it's getting from mainstream (large and well-funded) environmental organizations.

One of the better explanations--from the advocacy point of view--of what carbon offsetting or becoming carbon neutral means, as well as some of its promises and rationalizations, comes from the website of someone who's passion and commitment to a healthy environment as well as for social justice is both well known and respected, Dr. David Suzuki.

Let's examine a few of the salient points from

"A "carbon offset" is an emission reduction credit from another organization's project that results in less carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than would otherwise occur."

Ok, let's see... Plant A doesn't do something, which allows Plant B to do it instead, there is a transference of money accompanying this agreement, and this is supposed to be an offset of overall harm to the system on which life depends for its support?

"The buyers of the offsets benefit because they can claim that their purchase resulted in new non-polluting energy, which they can use to mitigate their own greenhouse gas emissions. The buyers may also save money as it may be less expensive for them to purchase offsets than to eliminate their own emissions."

Isn't all we're actually accomplishing with this scheme slowing down the overall rate of increase? And once again, money wins out over environment. You can abuse me in any way you want, just give me enough money to make the payments on my hottub and Hummer. And this is supposed to be a "principled" stance for the environmental movement? Did they skip the same ethics class most business majors do?

When are people going to realize that you don't compromise with evil? Less bad is not good. It still leads to systemic collapse, thus is not sustainable, and is the one option that really does need to be removed from the table.

"[S]elling offsets from tree planting projects is particularly problematic for a number of reasons, including their lack of permanence and the fact that these projects do not address our dependence on fossil fuels."

What they also don't address is our underlying addiction to consumer society and blind faith in the myth of infinite growth.

"Significantly, only offsets from energy efficiency and renewable energy projects qualify for the Gold Standard, as these projects encourage a shift away from fossil fuel use and carry inherently low environmental risks. Tree planting projects are explicitly excluded by The Gold Standard."

Translation: We've even invented a standard to ensure you that as little as possible happens to seriously challenge the status quo. The one activity that doesn't generate any income for polluters is excluded

"Gold Standard projects must meet very high additionality criteria to ensure that they contribute to the adoption of additional sustainable energy projects, rather than simply funding existing projects. The Gold Standard also includes social indicators to ensure the offset project contributes to sustainable development goals in the country where the project is based."

Here's a part that actually does make sense, and I think why so many people buy into the rest of the story, and not bother searching for alternatives to the initial creation of whatever harmful product is under consideration.

Net energy use must decrease, and the efficiency of the decreased use must increase. The confounding variables in this equation are excess consumption, excess population, and excess greed--not topics of conversation in polite company, and especially not the incestuous relationships amongst these variables. A techno-fix or accounting sleight-of-hand is much more palatable in maintaining the grand illusion of the consensus trance.

"Finally, all Gold Standard projects have been independently verified by a third party to ensure integrity."

Oh, great... and by someone with the sterling reputation, say, of Arthur Anderson, Inc.?

Ok, in all fairness to our cultural loss of the ability to think systemically, a lot of good people buy into the theory behind carbon trading schemes, and they do so because they truly care about the plight of the planet and a future that is at least livable by humans. It does make sense, in a very limited way, to attempt to curtail our addictions to all the stuff that pumps excess carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by shifting some of our dollars to industries that don't pollute as much on the assumption these industries wouldn't exist at all without at least this level of support, and the pollution from the old industries at least won't be increasing... or hopefully at least not at the same rate, anyway.

However, let's face it, this is the typical behavior of addicts. We'll get off heroin, just give us the methadone.

I mean... do the math while considering the whole system. With increasing demand, there is no net decrease in either natural destruction and resource depletion, nor to human exploitation. CO2 may (or may not) decrease at a specific site, while methane, nitrogen, and sulphur may increase somewhere else (hopefully in a different country so it's easier to ignore). Regardless, deforestation and oceanic deadzones keep increasing, glaciers keep disappearing, and Prozac profits just keep rolling in.

I think I'm going to add the following to a hot-key sequence, I find myself using it so often anymore: Wakey wakey, boys and girls! It's time to take the red pill and cast off the consensus trance!

You really don't have anything to lose but choking to death on your own vomit.

This might not be the prettiest picture imaginable, but try honestly imagining the alternative of not doing so.

Proponents of the various carbon schemes, which include "cap and trade" (cap but not reduce their "right" to pollute) then respond that no, a carbon offset establishes the fact that there is a cost to carbon pollution. Once it is in place the market will establish a true value to that pollution.

Well, yeah, that's pretty much what I said above. If you have enough money, we're willing to let you destroy the planet in any manner you please. The only factor that warrants consideration is the economic one. This is even reflected in the way proponents phrase it--the value of pollution.

Now, I do understand that we do need to shift investment to clean and renewable energy sources. I just don't see any way of escaping the fact that carbon offsets are a way of attempting to work within an inherently destructive and exploitive system. This is one of those inconvenient truths.

What would make more sense to me is to simply tax carbon out of existence, as well as the advertising that supports materialism, and put the money into quality of life initiatives that meet the goals of a sustainable future based on ecological wisdom and social justice.

I think there are many avenues this could take, but first we must come to a social agreement that this is the goal and on how we intend to measure progress toward this goal. This would both tone down the posturing, and more easily illuminate spin.

Are we going to continue pursuing the structural inequity, with nothing but a promise of a better tomorrow, from the Industrial Growth Society, or are we going to power-down and learn to maximize our potential within the biosphere's carrying capacity?

When an activity displays a bias toward harm, do we curtail the activity, or simply decide that paying off the victims still keeps the profit margins at an acceptable level?

While proponents of the carbon schemes will admit the concern about giving polluters an option to merely pay for what they are doing as they keep on polluting is valid, they then try to qualify their support by saying it will take time to make a transition from fossil fuel to renewable resources, and they see the polluters as those who will subsidize this transition.

I don't buy this rationalization at all, however. It's been pretty widely reported that conservation would save about 25-50% of energy use. Decentralizing the national grid would save about 50%. Not producing so much needless crap would save an unimaginable percentage. The only thing the transition scenario supports, knowing or not, is the time to shift elite control structures without losing their grip on power by continuing to propagate the myth that growth is necessary for prosperity and well-being. What they're really trying to protect, however, is the myth that elite control, based on one or another permutation of divine right (like eugenics), is really in the best interests of the "masses."

It seems that the aspects of an equitable and sustainable culture that we should be talking about are restoring community, creating walkable cities, building stuff to last and be repairable, restoring pride in craftsmanship, and shifting status and value to how much one contributes to society instead of how much one can accumulate from it. Plus, as numerous climate and energy experts state, we don't have the luxury of time to create a long transition strategy.

And not to be facetious, but it seems to me that a shift to a sustainable future could be done--it is within the realm of physical possibility and violates no known natural laws--to create this shift today with no harm to anyone but central bankers and insurance brokers.

Of course, when I made this point in a recent on-line conversation, one immediate response was that without central bankers and insurance brokers there is no research and development, no innovation.

To which I replied, more than a little incredulously, who funded the wheel? Pottery and glazing? Agriculture and plant hybridization?

Humans, after all, are creative, if nothing else. Banking actually stifles innovation, because only the innovation that benefits the banks gets funded. If it doesn't further or support the industrial growth paradigm, and provide a decent return on investment, it is neither fundable nor insurable.

This line of argument is similar to stating that if it weren't for the Patent and Trademark Office, none of these technologies would have occurred. This is also like the theory subscribed to by Pentagon planners, who assume aggression and competition are both natural and necessary for innovation, which is then used to justify the existence of a military because there will never be peace if we want to have human advancement. What this all is is patent nonsense.

I was, after all, being facetious--at least a little bit. My point was to bring to light but one of the many layers of social deadwood that have managed to create a story that we provide the legitimacy for.

The argument was also made that it seemed disingenuous to use a technology such as the Internet, which was funded by bankers to promote a shift in society that only harms bankers and insurance brokers.

As opposed, say, to a system that harms everyone else and the planet they depend on? And let's be real. The only harm it is going to do them might be a bit of job retraining and the need to re-evaluate their sense of self-worth.

Please consider, what real goods, necessary for the continuation of life, do bankers and insurance brokers actually provide?

Might the necessity and funding arguments be related to a general confusion in the public between appropriate technologies and appropriate use of technnology?

Rather than relying on the manipulation of fear and scarcity, don't you think we could come up with a better way to meet our needs and evolve our culture? We are, after all, supposed to be intelligent, rational creatures with the freedom of choice.

Of course solar, wind, and other alternative yet to be available on the shelf need investment; many people want to do something; and most of them would rather not have it resemble rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

And I'm of this mindset as well. But I keep thinking that our efforts will be best spent if directed. Stopping global warming is not a direction, it is a response, necessary as it may be.

It seems to me that we (the environmental and social justice movements) find ourselves in the situation common to high school youth, who when bored, say "let's just do something, even if it's wrong."

To have a direction implies a goal. If we were all to simply agree that sustainability is the goal, and use something like the Earth Charter for our common, shared values and to provide a framework for sustainable development, then we have a yardstick by which to measure progress and with which to evaluate proposals as to whether or not they further us along the path to the goal, or whether they're just holding measures that do little to nothing to address the cause of the problem we find ourselves faced with.

I'm of the opinion that we don't have the time for holding measures, and that a viable alternative is available that requires neither a techno-miracle nor a savior. It also happens to increase numerous indicators of what most people consider to be quality of life.

The alternative that can create a sustainable future based on ecological wisdom and social justice is the process of relocalization based on the natural systems principles of mutual support and reciprocity, no waste, no greed, and increasing diversity. These are the principles that keep an ecosystem healthy, vibrant, and resilient. Since these same principles created us--they are a natural part of who we are--it makes sense to me to apply our intelligence to ways we can benefit from these principles in our lifestyles and communities.

But instead, we exert all this energy going through all these extremely convoluted rationalizations to justify a social system based on greed, aggression, domination, and competition, none of which actually contribute to the creation of life. The best that can be said for any of them is that they may temporarily maintain an individual life, and generally at great cost.

Anyway, that was quite the detour to get back to the various carbon trading schemes, and the need to start a conversation about the fact that the pollution economy is the path to imminent ecocide, we need to knock it off instead of financially rewarding it, and we need to start creating things in a new way--a way that's in balance with natural systems and that honors the intrinsic value of life.