Saturday, February 09, 2013

California dreaming of offsets

I attended a fascinating-to-me workshop* Tuesday about California using international offsets in the form of reducing deforestation and degradation (REDD) in Acre Brazil and Chiapas Mexico.  The webinar's online, watch me babble a question if you want in the morning session tying their work to our water district's 2020 climate neutrality goal (third video down, at the 02:40:15 time).

The short version is that a relatively tiny fraction of California's effort to get to 1990 emission levels by 2020 would come through international forestry offsets, but even that tiny amount could be a billion dollars of financing, much larger than anything done to date and a potential kickstart to efforts in those two provinces and elsewhere.  This is truly new - the European cap-and-trade doesn't do it.

The meeting was of a group that provides technical recommendations to California and the other provinces/states, so whether they'll be followed is unclear, but they cautioned about giving offsets for actions that increase carbon storage on degraded and cleared land, because that might create incentives to log the land so it can be "restored".

Much or most of the discussion focused on measurement as a key to ensuring the offsets are real additions to what would have happened anyway.  The scientists are very confident that they can measure forest carbon storage accurately and not too expensively via satellite and airborne lidar.  The tricky part though is measuring what would've happened in the absence of offsets.

Passing over the possibility of time machines travelling to alternative universes without offsets for comparison purposes, they instead proposed reference levels of forest losses based on previous ten-year historical averages, projected into the future with some modifications and safeguards (slightly reduced levels available as offsets, further declining over time).  Reductions of emissions in subsequent years compared to reference levels, after adjustments, are the available offsets.  I'm a little unclear on the timing, but I think the Californians buy the offsets first in anticipation that they'll work, then the REDD program does its stuff and is verified.  I do know that if the buyer is liable if the offsets don't work and has to find carbon savings elsewhere in that case.

The beauty of this is that functions on the provincial level, so it's widescale (less leakage) and tracks provincial results instead of trying to measure every little project and assign carbon savings accordingly.  The controversy (or one of the controversies) is that the offset payments go to provincial governments, so how that money could reach the rural communities is an issue.  Safeguards for that will be discussed at a later meeting, and they have the concept of "nesting" project level credits into the provincial system.

A lot is riding on this, both in terms of global carbon emissions and our global ecology.  There's some danger of course, but also some tremendous opportunity.

*Fascinating enough that I may be interested in this area as a career field, so maybe I might have some bias.


John Mashey said...

I notice that Greg Asner was involved in the proposal. Was he there? he does great work at Carnegie Institution, Dept of Global Ecology. We had a tour through their newest plane.

Brian said...

Hi John - yes he was there, good presentation about LiDAR. It was in the second video, starting around minute 27 or 28.

Anonymous said...

additionality is a bitch. but less so as the price of allowances goes up. IMO it's more about optics than anything else. are rich white people really willing to pay poor brown people to cut down trees? i can't wait to hear what RPJr has to say once he gets his iron underwear on...


Anonymous said...

that would be "not cut down trees" of course.

Brian said...

MJ - the price is the key. If international offsets are cheaper than reducing their own emissions, it'll happen.

IIRC, international offsets come with buyer liability in case of failure, while domestic offsets are seller liable (or some of them anyway). That means the international offsets have to cost less to be attractive.