Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Steffen Böhm and Siddhartha Dabhi (eds) - Upsetting the Offset, The Political Economy of Carbon Markets

The idea that market mechanisms are the solution to our climate crisis might be considered dangerous in the light of recent economic events. Yet Carbon Trading and other related projects are at the heart of international strategies to deal with the environmental situation we are in. Thus this accessible and detailed examination of the economics behind such schemes and their impact on the world is both timely and important.

Carbon Trading schemes arose out of the Kyoto agreement in the early 1990s. They're based on the idea that you can offset or mitigate emissions of pollutants in one part of the world by balancing them out with projects that reduce or prevent emissions elsewhere. In an excellent essay, Larry Lohman of the Corner House institute points out that such creative accounting has been responsible for everything from coal mines to gas powered power stations being built.

The problem is, that "climate change isn't simply a numbers game". No matter how careful the accounting, offsetting schemes don't allow for other impacts - the eviction of families from land that is intended for tree planting. The problems of time - your offset scheme might allow you to carry on generating electricity by burning coal, but it may take 100s of years for the low energy light bulbs you've paid for to negate the emissions. The schemes are of course open to corruption - with numerous individuals running companies based on them, previously having been involved in pushing the legislation through. The longer term problem though, is that such schemes don't reduce emissions and they end up justifying the status quo.

Where is the incentive to invest in renewable energy if you can simply cancel out the pollution from your coal plant? Why move to more sustainable housing or transportation if you can mitigate the effects of existing practices by spending money elsewhere. Such creative accounting hasn't reduced emissions, but it has led to some very shady companies making large amounts of cash.

If I have one criticism of the book, it's that the alternatives don't match the scale of the problem that is outlined so well. 90% of the book is a critique of market mechanisms, and by extension, the capitalist system that produces them. With this in mind, simply offering small enclaves of sustainable housing or better biking practices isn't enough. As some of the essays point out, we need investment in zero carbon energy and non-fossil fuel based technologies as well as powerful social movements to force governments into action.

But this is a minor criticism. The vast bulk of the essays collected here will be extremely useful to those who want to argue that we have to change the world to save it.

Related Review

CTW - The Carbon Neutral Myth, Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins

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