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A Place for Offsets in the New Climate Reality?

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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By Mik McKee

Maybe it’s a factor of a long, hot summer, but lately the news about climate change seems particularly dire. On Sept. 12, Climate Central reported that the prior month ranked as the hottest August on record. A few days later, the Associated Press informed us that arctic sea ice shrank to its second lowest level since scientists started monitoring it.

For me, these global climate change events are difficult to contextualize, but 2016 has been a tough year on a more local level as well. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, my fiancé’s hometown, experienced a 1,000-year flooding event that damaged 60,000 homes, and which most experts agree was caused by climate change. The same week, communities in California were subject to devastating wildfires, the result of five years of drought. For communities in Alaska, the new normal is even more complicated — a catch 22 of being dependent on the fuels causing climate change and being destroyed by the gases created by burning those fuels.

In all fairness, 2016 has seen remarkably good climate news as well. Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. and China ratified the Paris climate agreement, which commits both countries to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Together, China and the U.S. account for 25.4 percent and 14.4 percent of global emissions, respectively, and signing this agreement before the end of the year represents major progress toward reducing emissions. However, despite this monumental achievement, there is still a great deal of disagreement about how to effectively fight climate change — and I’m only talking about the 70 percent of Americans who understand climate change is real — so how we’re going to reach the greenhouse gas reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement is less clear.

Indeed, the future of two leading greenhouse gas mitigation programs in the United States, California’s cap and trade program and President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), is uncertain. The implementation of the Clean Power Plan has been held up by a Supreme Court stay, ostensibly to determine whether the EPA has the authority to impose the CPP under the Clean Air Act. Similarly, the California Air Resources Board’s authority to extend the cap and trade program beyond 2020 is being challenged by California Assembly Bill 197, which proposed to regulate emissions at the source rather than through a market-based cap and trade mechanism.

Both the CPP and AB 32 support carbon offsetting as a means for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At The Climate Trust, we often talk about the concept of “offsets plus” – the idea that generating land-based carbon offsets nearly always has a greater benefit than just greenhouse gas reduction. As a person closely connected to forest and rangeland management, I believe it is important to recognize the role that offsets play in sustainable land management.

Carbon offsets are a relatively new source of revenue for forest and range landowners, especially those with a conservation ethic. In part, this is because the leading compliance and voluntary protocols require landowners to meet certain sustainability criteria, such as agreeing to manage forests for diverse structure. Some protocols even go as far as to require that project owners encumber their property with a permanent conservation easement that prohibits forest and range conversion in perpetuity.

As the price and demand for carbon offsets increases, as is expected when the CPP and AB 32 expand to their full potential, more and more landowners will be willing to manage in accordance with sustainability criteria in exchange for carbon offset revenue. Greater landowner participation will lead directly to improved water quality, wildlife habitat, and the overall resiliency of forest and range land ecosystems. Even with the modest price and demand for offsets we see today, the impacts are apparent.

I believe the link between offset revenue and sustainable land management is often overlooked by the interest groups working to undermine the CPP and AB 32. Carbon offset revenue directly compensates landowners who choose to implement conservation-based practices rather than business as usual management, and society benefits from that in many more ways than simply greenhouse gas reduction.

It is true that offsets are only one of many ways to reduce greenhouse gasses, but the additional environmental benefits they achieve make them a powerful conservation tool. Clean drinking water, healthy and resilient landscapes, and abundant wildlife habitat sustain both upstream and downstream users, and it is important we don’t overlook that.

Image credit: Flickr/ddqhu

Mik McKee is the Senior Forestry Analyst for The Climate Trust

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