Western States Lead the Way (Without Compromising the Planet)

Katy Yan

Zion Canyon and the unassuming Virgin River that created it. Utah is a member of the WCI.
Zion Canyon and the unassuming Virgin River that created it. Utah is a member of the WCI.
I recently returned from a long-awaited trip to Zion and Bryce canyons in Utah, two geologically fabulous places carved largely by the forces of rivers and rain. A few major climate developments met me back at the office: federal climate legislation had died, western states and provinces in the US and Canada took one step closer to addressing climate change despite federal inaction, and the great Steve Schneider (who taught me and so many others that being a scientist doesn't mean taking a backseat in policy-making) had passed away. May he rest in peace.

Let's deal with the first two (anger is usually easier to express than sadness). With evidence continuing to mount that our earth is growing hotter and more humid with each passing day, it's not surprising that we're all pretty angry that the US Congress gave up on any climate legislation this year.

This is in light of the recent (and disturbing) developments in our climate, as reported by Bill McKibben of 350.org:

  • According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the planet has just come through the warmest decade, the warmest twelve months, the warmest six months and the warmest April, May and June on record.
  • A new study from Canadian researchers has shown that warmer seawater has reduced phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, by 40 percent since 1950.
  • Nine nations have so far set their all-time temperature records in 2010, including Russia (111 degrees), Niger (118), Sudan (121), Saudi Arabia and Iraq (126 apiece), and Pakistan (130), which also set the new all-time Asia record in May.

A glimmer of hope (and a lesson for Washington DC) can be found, however, in the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), a coalition of seven US states and four Canadian provinces that have been working together since 2007 to create policies that address climate change. The WCI recently released its design document that outlines the guidelines for states and provinces to develop market-based and other programs to reduce regional GHG emissions to 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

International Rivers has been closely monitoring both the WCI and California's climate program, making sure that these programs exclude offsets that may come from destructive dams, particularly through the highly controversial Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which has a long and ongoing history of selling fake credits (Point Carbon, sub req'd). Including fake offsets would present a major loophole for polluters while threatening the environmental integrity of these regional climate programs.

Xiaoxi Dam, a CDM hydro project in China with significant resettlement violations
Xiaoxi Dam, a CDM hydro project in China with significant resettlement violations
One especially bright note for us was thus, in the WCI's design document, offsets from the CDM have been omitted entirely. Instead, offsets can only come from "a project located in Canada, the US, or Mexico" (if offsets from hydro do pop up in any of these areas, you'll know where we'll be). This is a major blow for carbon traders and another sign that confidence in the CDM is dwindling. Whether it's because the WCI offsets folks have finally taken note of our concerns or because the CDM may be approaching its downfall, we're glad to know that civil society can still get policy-makers to act on climate change without compromising away the planet.

Some other highlights to note:

  • Clean energy benefits: By putting a price on carbon, the WCI will hopefully make clean energy more cost-competitive and give consumers more affordable alternatives to fossil fuels.
  • Health benefits: By using energy more efficiently and investing in clean energy, air pollution decreases and health problems, like asthma, that are at or nearing epidemic levels in many communities throughout the West, can be prevented.

But before we prematurely pop the cork, a few obstacles in the road still remain:

  • Domestic offsets: Most offsets will likely come from domestic agriculture and forestry, and there is scant evidence thus far that these offsets will be "high quality offsets" – offsets that are real and permanent.
  • Offset limit: The offset limit is still set very high, and the amount of offsets that will be allowed (within the overall limit of 49% of reductions) will be left up to the WCI partner jurisdictions.
  • Implementation: Progress on the WCI hinges on California, which is currently embroiled in a battle to preserve its own climate program. You can read about this on the Union of Concerned Scientists' website.

While we will continue to call for fewer offsets and ensure that those that do get through really are "high quality," we recognize that the WCI has taken a positive step forward for its businesses and citizens. And isn't it about time?