US Congress Waking Up to Offset Scams?

In September I spent a couple of days touring Congressional offices in Washington with Karen Orenstein from Friends of the Earth, US, a key ally on our climate change work. We were talking to senators' and representatives' staff about carbon offsets - in particular, international ones (i.e. CDM credits) - and whether they should be eligible to be used in the cap-and-trade regime which is expected to be passed by Congress over the next year or two.

I was surprised at the level of awareness of the existence of the CDM, and indeed of its many problems. But disappointed at the widespread acceptance that the CDM was necessary to get the big polluters to agree to cap-and-trade, and to help get developing countries to agree to a new international climate treaty by showing that the US was willing to transfer funds to the Global South.

Our message to the lawmakers was that there were far more effective and efficient ways of funding decarbonization in developing countries. Also that as most CDM credits are fake - they don't actually represent emission reductions - large-scale reliance on the CDM (and domestic offsets, which are currently likely even more meaningless than those produced by the CDM) would render any US climate action a hoax.

Some lawmakers have got the message. In particular independent Bernie Sanders (VT) and Bob Corker (R-TN) who introduced an amendment to bar international offsets from this year’s failed Lieberman-Warner climate bill.

Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico)
Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico)
It now appears that Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which would have a key role in shaping cap-and-trade legislation, is rethinking the benefits of offsets. Bingaman told a conference on 12 November:

"I think this whole issue of offsets, the more I’ve read about this issue, both international and domestic offsets, are fraught with opportunity for game playing, which will be fully exploited, I’m sure. We have a lot of creative people who can find ways to find offsets and to verify offsets if we open that door to occur.

"I think there’s a tendency from a political point of view to set very aggressive targets so that we can tell everybody we’ve set very aggressive targets, and then at the same time enact such a robust system for offsets that nobody has to meet targets in a real way.

"The emissions don’t have to be actually reduced. Instead, everyone can buy offsets that turn out not to have resulted in additional emission reductions. We need to think through that."

Media coverage of rip-offsets is no doubt helping to change minds. In a piece of excellent timing for Karen and myself, on one of the days we were doing the rounds on Capitol Hill, the Washington Post had a front page story that described the fake offsets being produced by a Virgina landfill project.

There is still a lot of persuading to be done, but there are some encouraging signs that when the US belatedly starts to act on its responsibility on climate it will not cheat by buying fake offsets rather than actually cutting emissions. Now if only the supposedly climate-responsible EU could do the same . . .