Sunday, March 11, 2007

A brief moment of fairness: Defending Al Gore's carbon offsets 

Since I beat up on Al Gore for being a chickengreen and argued that Gore's approach to carbon "offsets" did not absolve him of the charge, fairness compels me to link to Gregg Easterbrook's column defending Gore. Apparently the outfit that promotes carbon indulgences offsets actually gets to the finish line by controlling methane, which by volume is a much worse greenhouse gas than CO2.

TerraPass charges $1,247.50 for one year of carbon offsets for a home like Mr. Gore’s, the price including a refrigerator magnet proclaiming the home “carbon balanced.” Initially I found it hard to believe anyone could counteract Mr. Gore’s prodigious energy lust for just $1,247.50, since planting about 20,000 trees would be required to neutralize even half his house’s carbon footprint.

But it turns out that TerraPass does its good works in part by covering landfills to prevent methane from seeping out. Since methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, covering landfills is a cost-effective way to wrestle with global warming. I may be annoyed by Mr. Gore’s hectoring, but I’m not going to accuse him of hypocrisy on this one.

This all seems a classic example of economies of scale. Individuals can’t do anything about landfill methane. But a company like TerraPass can combine the resources of many to accomplish this task, allowing the person of good intent to use energy with no net contribution to the greenhouse effect. Whether companies marketing offsets really do reduce greenhouse gases is something for consumer reporters or the Federal Trade Commission to determine. Assuming the sellers do as promised, buying carbon offsets isn’t an exercise in guilt. It’s smart economics.

This does not rescue Gore from the chickengreen charge for all the obvious reasons, but it is nevertheless a good thing for Gore to do.

Easterbrook goes on to make an even more interesting argument, which is that we would all benefit much more from investment in carbon offsets in India and China.
Since 1990, according to the World Resources Institute, American greenhouse emissions rose 18 percent while Chinese emissions rose 77 percent. China may pass America as the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases as soon as 2010. If current trends hold, by 2050 emerging nations led by China and India will emit twice as much carbon as the United States and Western Europe combined.

China’s emissions are soaring because the Chinese economy is nearly three times as “carbon intensive” as America’s, burning far more fossil fuel per unit of gross domestic product. Chinese coal-fired power plants are notoriously inefficient, consuming twice as much coal per kilowatt produced as American generating stations. They also run without the elaborate anti-pollution “stack scrubbers” found in Western power plants. And China opens a new coal-fired generating station every week to 10 days.

Here’s where offset economics come into play. Dollar for dollar, capital invested in greenhouse gas reduction would accomplish more if used to improve the efficiency of Chinese power plants than if spent in the United States. America needs legislation capping carbon emissions here, but Congress should allow American companies and consumers to use investments in carbon offsets in China and India against those caps, where the bang for the buck is much higher....

If our goal in legislating against carbon releases is not simply punishing the West and its power companies but truly trying to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, the main event will be in the developing world. We must use the smartest possible economics, and that means investing in China and India.

In the end, the American political objection to Kyoto -- which was bipartisan until Democrats conveniently forgot the truth that they, too, opposed its ratification -- had less to do with the objections to the "science" than with the low return on the huge cost of its enforcement. The exclusion of "developing" economies, which Al Gore negotiated, is implicit recognition of the point that containing greenhouse gases will be enormously burdensome to any economy that tries to do it. It also means that the rich countries that bear that burden will not actually get any benefit from it, because China and India will substitute their carbon for ours. It therefore seems to me that Easterbrook's solution -- if coupled with caps on Chinese and Indian greenhouse gas emissions -- is a way out of Dodge.


By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Sun Mar 11, 10:27:00 AM:

Inconvenient Truth: dirt is permeable to gases.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Mar 11, 12:04:00 PM:

I wonder if those coal fired power plants are built of parts manufactured China. Who is profiting from the Chinese rape of the environment?  

By Blogger Unknown, at Sun Mar 11, 12:46:00 PM:

What will we do when the tiny Hollywood and political elites have claimed and sealed all of the available landfills? Build new ones for the rest of us to seal up? This is cute, but from a big picture point of view ridiculous.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Mar 11, 12:47:00 PM:

Well that's some new information - but I like my idea better (heh heh)


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Mar 11, 06:53:00 PM:

"But it turns out that TerraPass does its good works in part by covering landfills to prevent methane from seeping out."

Oh give me a break! Landfills are covered every day after the day's garbage is dumped; it's done by the landfill owners in the normal course of business. When a landfill is finally shut down, it's sealed. Methane gas is siphoned off and stored for later use.

This is just another ruse about phony "carbon credits"!!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Mar 11, 09:06:00 PM:

Before spending a cent on carbon offsets watch Great Global Warming Swindle on Google Video. Just Google - Great Global Warming Swindle - then scroll down to the Google video version and watch an hour and 15 minutes of great revelation. No CO2 problem folks.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 12, 01:03:00 AM:

HUH? Let's rephrase:

"What the US Congress should do, is tax US citizens and use the money to build more efficient power plants for our potential rival, China"

Yep, YOU try to sell that one to us proles.  

By Blogger Georg Felis, at Mon Mar 12, 12:58:00 PM:

I for one totally agree with Al, and plan on going out at noon today for a hamburger, which will remove one of the Dreaded Cattle of Methane from doing its evil work of attempting to anger the Sun God. If the rest of TH’s visitors all pledge to assist me in this noble crusade, together we can eat these methane producers out of existence and thus save the planet. (Sorry TH, you can’t participate. You’re still on that diet. Eat your lettuce, we’ll get the cows.)  

By Blogger Newtons Bit, at Mon Mar 12, 02:52:00 PM:

It's not carbon offsets, it's methane offsets which is pointless. Methane has a half-life of roughly 10 years in the atmosphere. It is incredibly easy to manage. All you have to do is slow down your methane production, which is easy, just kill all the livestock in the world and wait 20 years and the methane levels will be almost normal.

Carbon dioxide is hard to remove from the atmosphere and takes a very long time to dissipate.

This is apples and oranges. He's putting something difficult into the atmosphere and taking away something else that's easy.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 12, 03:54:00 PM:

Give me abrake green weenies thats no excuses for demanding we all live live primatives while you live in your fancy homes with its heat and cooling and for AL GORE to go around urging us all to give up our SUVs while he drives around in a 30 foot long 4 mpg limo  

By Blogger gossypol, at Wed Mar 14, 10:30:00 PM:


Maybe it's not a totally "phony" carbon offset (in terms of reducing potential greenhouse gasses). Maybe it's just a way to get paid two or three times for the same work. One would expect that the municipality which controlled the land fill would also pay TerraPass for covering up the landfill. This would only make it "phony" in terms of allowing an outside contributor to claim "carbon neutrality".

I have read about earlier "offsets" by Gore which seemed more like long-term investments.

The thread below is full of interesting information on offsets, including one comment suggesting that many carbon offset companies get paid two or three times for the same carbon offset.

Also discussed are methane emissions from the growth and death of plants. One would expect that most of the methane from landfills would come from decaying organic material. If someone could identify other major sources of methane within landfills, I would be interested.


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