By now we are all familiar with the criteria for robust carbon offsets:real, additional, verifiable, enforceable, permanent. But what exactly do those criteria mean? And how should a cap-and-trade program be designed to ensure that they are met?
Earlier this month the three regional U.S. greenhouse gas programs released a white paper which sets out their answers. In Ensuring Offset Quality: Design and Implementation Criteria for a High-Quality Offset Program, representatives of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the Western Climate Initiative, and the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord provided their consensus view on key offset policy design and implementation components. They concluded that offsets provide an important compliance flexibility that reduces the cost of cap-and-trade programs, allows for more varied emissions reduction opportunities, and ultimately enables the pursuit of more aggressive emissions reduction targets. This all comes with a stern warning: if offset projects do not achieve the five tenets listed above, the one-to-one relationship between substituting emissions reductions outside the cap for those under the cap is destroyed, and environmental benefits of the cap-and-trade program are undermined. The paper emphasizes additionality as the most important criterion ¾ offset programs must guarantee that the project “would not have happened anyway in the absence of the economic incentive created by the compliance obligation created by the cap-and-trade program.
The paper favors an approach where the validity of offsets is determined through standardized requirements rather than project-by-project determinations of which offsets can be used for compliance. Both the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism and the European Union’s original offset program relied on a project-by-project system, while the climate change bill recently released by Senators Kerry and Lieberman and the ACES bill passed by the House last year are more reliant on standardized requirements.
The principles advanced in the white paper are useful, but they are still theoretical.The challenge remains to develop standardized guidelines that will address tricky issues such as guaranteeing the permanence of an afforestation offset, where there is always the chance of a forest fire, or ensuring the additionality of a landfill methane capture project, when regulations or the market may have demanded it anyway. Perhaps that is why we have the states as laboratories ¾ including the very states that drafted this paper ¾ as we wait for federal climate legislation to become a reality. The consensus announced in the white paper could certainly form the basis for a federal offsets scheme, but the regional programs don’t seem to be holding their breath.