The Joy of Carbon Offsets

CC_logo_small.jpgLast week ClimatePULSE addressed the question, “Are offsets immoral?”. We considered offsets from the “philosophical” point of view and from the regulation side, where we noted the potential of offsets help us reduce emissions now while buying the time needed to transform our energy infrastructure.
This week let’s consider the question, “Are offsets inspirational?” Here we examine offsets from the ‘innovation’ side, and highlight the potential for offset opportunities to motivate the development and widespread adoption of new and cleaner technologies. To illustrate the concept, we will use as a current ClimateCHECK project as an example; the development of a protocol to quantify GHG reductions on dairy farms in Canada.

Dairy farmers in Canada are a wholesome and efficient group. The average farm has about 65 cows, and is a family-focused enterprise. The most recent year for which data concerning greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from dairy farms in Canada has been published in scientific literature is 2001. These emissions are calculated from all dairy farm sources, including feed production, cows, manure storage, and manure spreading. In 2001, emissions from dairy farms comprised about 1.5% of total emissions in Canada. In the period from 1981 to 2001, GHG emissions from all dairy cows in Canada decreased by 49%. And, the emissions per kg of milk decreased by 35%. These emissions have decreased as a result of increased efficiency of milk production on dairy farms.
With these dramatic decreases in GHG emissions over the past few decades, most of the low-hanging fruit has been harvested. This means further decreases will require greater innovation, and also greater effort and expense. Even if a further reduction of 25% can be achieved and quantified as GHG reduction credits, at $10 per tonne CO2e the potential total value for the average farm will be less than the revenue from two days of milk sales. Yet, despite these challenges, the Atlantic Dairy and Forage Institute, partnering with the Dairy Farmers of Canada, applied to the Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food (ACAAF) Program for funds to develop a GHG reduction quantification protocol. And, in the process led by ClimateCHECK, the dairy farmers consistently encouraged the invited scientists to use conservativeness and credibility as the crucial criteria for protocol development.
So, why would dairy farmers develop and implement a protocol so rigorous for such a seemingly small reward? Based on our personal observations, we are persuaded that dairy farmers believe the emerging transactional rigor of an offset market will inspire farmers to strive for excellence in environmental stewardship and will inspire consumers to take greater notice of the sustainability of the milk production system.
This brings us back to our question; will society recognize the inspirational value of these agricultural offsets? Perhaps more importantly we need to ask, do these offsets meet the standard of motivating transformational innovation? Dairy farmers of Canada seem to think the answer is “yes”. The offsets industry is full of inspirational and transformative projects like this that literally make every day practices like eating and traveling more sustainable.