Buying emission offsets has just become easier, and cheaper

The urgency for action on climate change is building. It now seems to me that responsible businesses, communities and individuals must reframe their targets towards ‘beyond zero emissions ASAP’, not just gradual reduction or even net zero emissions by 2020 or 2030.
The good news is that it’s becoming cheaper (or even more profitable) and easier to cut emissions.
This means aggressively cutting our emissions both from our own emission- generating activities and from the inputs to our lives and businesses.
Voluntary abaters must also buy and cancel offsets to balance the emissions we can’t avoid and to go beyond zero emissions. An exciting development here is that the United Nations has now set up a carbon offset trading website where individuals can buy and surrender internationally recognised carbon permits (climateneutralnow.org).
I found a range of projects with offset costs from US$0.50 to US$5 per tonne of emissions avoided. One project even met the Gold Standard (see www.goldstandard.org, set up by WWF and endorsed by over 80 NGOs) for very high quality credits. You can select the ones you like best, based on the details provided.*
I road-tested the site by buying 100 tonnes of offsets from a small run-of-river hydro plant in India. So instead of just thinking about donating to worthy international charities, you can now choose to support projects that cut emissions and also deliver worthwhile social, economic and environmental benefits for their host communities—at bargain prices.
The UN’s website climateneutralnow.org includes advice on cutting your own personal emissions and carbon offsets to support international projects that individuals can purchase.
Now is a good time to buy quality offsets: they are unlikely to ever be as cheap again. And if we don’t buy and surrender them to cut global emissions, high emitters will buy them up at low prices to offset their emissions.
If enough people buy up permits to reduce the present glut, prices will increase to a point where high emitters may actually focus on reducing their emissions instead of just buying compliance with cheap permits.
There is debate about the rationale for buying international offsets. The present low prices for offsets are an outcome of a number of factors, including weak targets, over-generous allocations of free permits, poor trading scheme design, lower than expected economic growth since the GFC, declining emission intensity of economies and corruption.
However, once they are certified by an approved scheme, they are legal ‘currency’, regardless of their quality.
Some argue that governments should act to disallow existing poor quality permits. But in my view this is unlikely, despite being desirable.
This is effectively retrospective removal of a right to emit and would create a precedent many fear could then be applied in other policy areas.
International negotiations are messy enough and, to me, it seems unlikely that agreement would ever be reached to do this. In any case, if you buy offsets you consider to be credible and which deliver additional benefits to communities, they are unlikely to be made invalid and they deliver tangible other benefits beyond emission reduction.
The Australian government could work with the international community to improve the integrity of international carbon certification schemes, as well as its own Emission Reduction Fund rules.
 
Alan Pears, AM, is one of Australia’s best- regarded sustainability experts. He is a Senior Industry Fellow at RMIT University, advises a number of industry and community organisations and works as a consultant.

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