Offsets, offsets, offsets
Posted by Danny Morris on June 16, 2009
It seems like all anyone can do anymore is talk about offsets (at least in my sheltered life). Partially that’s because they are emerging as the key issue that could make or break the Waxman-Markey bill, and possibly a future Senate bill (which may make a splash before the end of the summer). The three links above provide a good snapshot of the world of offsets as it stands now.
The first link is a rundown of the lobbying brawls surrounding the amount of offsets in Waxman-Markey. It does a good job of highlighting the difference between industry lobbyists (they heart offsets) and environmental lobbyists (they don’t trust them). One thing the article gets wrong, however, is who decides what is an offset:
Near the top of the lobbyists’ wish list is persuading Congress to specify which projects would be eligible as offsets. The bill creates large categories, then allows third parties to decide what is eligible as an offset. Those third parties probably would be similar to groups in the voluntary offset market like the Chicago Climate Network or the Climate Action Reserve in California.
That is an incorrect statement. Third party standards will probably be followed closely or entirely, but it is the Offsets Integrity Advisory Board (OIAB) that will be housed in the EPA that will be the the final authority that determines what is an offset. Thankfully, the bill itself does not say what counts as an offset, but you can imagine the fury that will burn around the OIAB if they make a decision that enrages a powerful and well-endowed interest group.
Actually, you need not imagine that because it has already occurred, which brings us to the second link above. Way back when Waxman-Markey emerged from committee markup, Collin Peterson (D-MN), chariman of the House Agriculture Committee started throwing a hissy fit about the supposed lack of role for agriculture offsets. He basically threatened to torpedo the whole bill if it gave offset market oversight to the EPA. Peterson is still stewing about an EPA rule that may make biofuel producers responsible for their full carbon footprint, including the possible indirect landuse changes resulting from ethanol production, so his solution is to bring down Waxman-Markey unless he gets his way. Discussions between Peterson and Henry Waxman’s staff have been on-going, but as of today, it sounds like Waxman is done playing with Peterson and House leadership may look to take their chances with a floor debate.
At this point, it can feel like using economic arguments is sort of like sternly yelling at a freight train, but I’ve got a loud voice, so I’ll give it a shot. This bill in no way excludes agricultural offsets. It doesn’t exclude any kind of offsets, nor should it. The point is to establish a market system where offsets can be brought, and let the market decide what makes a good offset. The role of OIAB is essentially quality control and setting standards. If your offset is legit, then you don’t need to worry. If it’s just a play to get make more money for Monsanto without any real carbon benefits, then there’s a chance it won’t make the cut.
Even though the offset language in the bill doesn’t favor a certain kind of offset, it contains a number of additional standards for forest offsets. That’s probably because everyone recognizes landuse and forest emissions are a big slice of the climate pie (20% of global emissions), but it also because we have a ways to go before we figure out how to make international forest offsets and REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) work effectively.
The third link connects to the latest and greatest studies related to REDD and offsets. Basically, if we want to keep temperature changes below 2 degrees C, we need forest carbon. In the short term, capacity building, establishing pilot projects, and setting baselines for forests are the priorities. In the long term, international offset markets are going to sustain efforts to reduce emissions, so long that enough revenues make their way to indigeneous communties to compete with other land uses.
How well can these international offset markets work? According the authors of the economics study, offset prices between $10-$30 may capture 1-4 billion tons of CO2 per year, or 12-20% of current global emissions. Additionally, international links between markets may significantly reduce global allowance prices (by about 40%). Not bad. It’s important, however, to view these studies in context of the others. If we don’t get local buy-in and solid capacity building, we don’t get our offset markets. Conversely, if the market benefits don’t make their way down to the people on the ground, then all those forests (and investments) could go up in smoke. An when indigeneous people feel like they are being exploited by foreign investment, it’s none too pretty.