Towards credible offsets

Carbon offsets are often criticised as no better than medieval “papal indulgences” – pay a few dollars and have your sins forgiven, then feel free to sin again – but they have a valuable role to play in the transition to a low carbon economy. Provided, of course, that the offsets – the emissions reductions or carbon sequestration that someone undertakes on your behalf – are real. There are substantial moves afoot to develop credible international standards for offsets, and a seminar at the Institute of Policy Studies in Wellington last week (Carbon Neutrality and the Voluntary Carbon Market in New Zealand) looked at the issue in the NZ context.

Rod Oram’s column in the Sunday Star Times this week drew on his experience at the seminar, and paints a picture of what’s going on in the voluntary sector.

…if we leave climate change to mandated government actions such as treaties, caps, emissions trading and standards we will never achieve the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions needed to stabilise the global climate, argues Michael Molitor of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Australian practice. Even if you take all the existing mandatory national and international programmes in place and add in something of similar scope for the US on the assumption that the next president will act, “you do not get a reduction in timing and scale of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020,” he told a Victoria University Institute of Policy Studies seminar last week. “So, you have to engage everybody.” And that means developing voluntary carbon markets to incentivise people to change their behaviour and adopt better technology.

Many of the presentations given at the seminar are available at the IPS web site, and one well worth reading in detail is a paper (Carbon Neutrality, Carbon Footprints, Offsets… and Credibility [PDF]) by Murray Ward, Melanie Hutton and Jim Renwick. It provides an excellent overview.

Also worth noting: on November 19th, The Climate Group (a British NGO), the World Economic Forum, and the International Emissions Trading Association will launch a new global Voluntary Carbon Standard. No popes involved.

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