Can Carbon Offsets Make A Comeback

Can Carbon Offsets Make A Comeback

Carbon offsets allow users of carbon to “offset” their carbon use by funding projects which reduce an equal or greater amount of carbon emissions elsewhere. For example, a person who flies from Seattle to New York and back emits about 7,000 pounds of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere.  To counteract the emissions from the flight, a person can “buy an offset” to help fund a project (a typical project is purchasing high-efficiency cookstoves for people in Africa presently using carbon-spewing stoves) that will prevent 7,000 pounds of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.   By purchasing an offset, a person can theoretically make the cross-country flight without adding to the atmospheric over-saturation of CO2 that is threatening our planet.     Some people purchase offsets to counterbalance their entire carbon footprint, which averages about 17 tons or 34,000 pounds for the average American.  Most voluntary carbon offsets are purchased by businesses interested in “greening” the image of their business.

Given that carbon offsets provide just about the only way for individuals and businesses to zero out their carbon footprint, one would think that carbon offsets would be increasing popular, given growing concerns about global warming.  Just the opposite—voluntary carbon offset transactions in 2013 totaled only $78 million, off 42% from 2010 levels, and sufficient to offset only 9 million tons of CO2 (the CO2emissions of 500,000 Americans).  A flurry of press articles and academic studies about carbon offsets from 2006-2010 has tapered to nearly nothing.  The last time the New York Times wrote about offsets was in 2007.

The Gasoline Purge

The Gasoline Purge

Many people don’t like using gasoline, but feel that they are unable to live their lives without it.  Is it possible to wean oneself off gasoline?

Most people can’t stop using gasoline overnight.  A realistic goal for most everybody is making a consistent effort to cut gasoline consumption, and to buy a plug-in electric or plug-in hybrid car when replacing one’s current car.

The average American drives about 13,500 miles per year in a gas-powered car, and consumes about 540 gallons of gas and emits about 10,500 pounds of CO2 per year doing so.

Is the Electric Car Tipping Point All About Cost?

Is the Electric Car Tipping Point All About Cost?

A recent Bloomberg article “Big Oil Is About to Lose Control of the Auto Industry: A Pollution-free Revolution Is Coming,” reports that prices of batteries for electric cars are falling fast, that cost parity between electric and gasoline cars is likely to occur within a decade, and that worldwide electric car sales totaled 288,500 (0.5% of total sales) in 2014, five times the total in 2011.  The author posits that demand for gasoline is flat and gas prices are low in substantial part because of the increasing market share of low and zero-emissions vehicles.

Meanwhile, a report from auto website Edmunds.com suggests that green cars sales are highly dependent on gas prices.   According to Edmunds, hybrid and electric vehicle sales in the first quarter of 2015 declined relative to the same period last year because of lower gas prices.  Edmunds also reported that only 45% of people trading in a hybrid or electric vehicle in 2015 bought another one, down from 60% in 2012.

Gas Pump Warning Labels Push Consumers to Reject Gasoline

Gas Pump Warning Labels Push Consumers to Reject Gasoline

Our Horizon, a Toronto-based environmental group led by Rob Shirkey, is campaigning throughout Canada and the U.S. to enact laws requiring warning labels on gas pumps which inform consumers about the environmental consequences of using gasoline.   The campaign is gaining traction.  Berkeley and San Francisco governments have given preliminary approval to the idea and are in the process of drafting the warning label regulations.  The City of West Vancouver recently passed a resolution favoring the warning labels.

In a stirring TEDx talk and on the ourhorizon.org website, Shirkey argues that the labels confront the consumer with the severe yet distant impacts of climate change, thereby counteracting the total lack of feedback between the use of carbon and its consequences.  He also says that the warning labels “take a problem [climate change] of diffuse origins and locate responsibility right in the palm of your hand.”

“Beyond Gridlock” Finds Enormous Potential in Private Emission Reduction Efforts

“Beyond Gridlock” Finds Enormous Potential in Private Emission Reduction Efforts

Vanderbilt Professors Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan’s new article “Beyond Gridlock” (advance version available here, publication in the Columbia Environmental Law Journal in Summer 2015) finds enormous potential for carbon emissions reductions from voluntary private actions by businesses and households despite governmental gridlock.  Mobilizing such private initiatives could buy additional years to enact comprehensive national and international climate legislation and agreements before we reach a 2oC rise in global temperatures.

The authors examine a wide array of private initiatives, ranging from corporations requiring carbon-emission disclosures from the suppliers in their supply chain (as Walmart, Cisco, and Dell have done), to drivers shutting off their cars when they idle for more than 30 seconds, to a private climate registry wherein individuals can register their actions to prevent climate change for future generations.  They conclude that these and other private initiatives together could lead to a reduction in annual CO2 emissions worldwide of a gigaton or more.

Can a Recommended Carbon Limit Do for Carbon what Diets Do for Food?

Can a Recommended Carbon Limit Do for Carbon what Diets Do for Food?

What policies can bridge the divide between the public’s concern about the climate crisis and their unwilling-ness to pay additional taxes on energy?

Recent  New York Times polling found that 83% of Americans (including 61% of Republicans) believe that global warming will be a serious world problem if nothing is done about it.    The public’s high level of concern about global warming does not translate into willingness to pay more for carbon.  The poll found 63% of the public opposed to higher gasoline taxes, and 74% opposed to higher electricity taxes.

Demand For Oil Can Decrease Despite Low Gas Prices

Demand For Oil Can Decrease Despite Low Gas Prices

Oil companies’ share prices tumbling.  Fracking and oil exploration projects cancelled.   Environmentalist dreams? No, these are today’s headlines caused by falling oil prices.

But what about the demand side?  Will low gas prices cause consumers to use more gas and emit more carbon?    While the supply-and-demand curves of economics textbooks and some survey evidence suggest that they will, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that gasoline demand and usage must increase if gas prices remain low.  For example, bus ridership in King County, Washington is up, despite service cuts and gas prices well below last year’s. Nissan Leaf sales in December 2014 were up nearly 20% over a year earlier.

Imaging CO2: An interview with laser imager Vic Miller

Imaging CO2: An interview with laser imager Vic Miller

No one has yet captured an image of the CO2 spewing from car tailpipes.  Such video images could revolutionize how we think about the copious carbon pollution (20 lbs. of CO2/gallon) we emit when we drive.

To better understand how and when we might expect to get images of CO2 tailpipe emissions, I interviewed Vic Miller, an engineering post-doc at Stanford University, and an expert in laser imaging of gases. Vic is working on a technique to image CO2 from a tailpipe (among other projects).  His team’s laser-enhanced video of a match strike was recently featured in the New York Times.

Low Gas Prices May Be Final Blow to Carbon Tax Strategy

Low Gas Prices May Be Final Blow to Carbon Tax Strategy

Today’s low gas prices (the national average this week is $2.69 a gallon) are another nail in the coffin for the climate movement’s longstanding strategy of reducing gasoline use through imposition of higher motor fuel taxes.  As discussed in an earlier blog post, higher federal gas taxes to disincentivize gas consumption are completely off the table until a new Congress arrives in 2017, and probably long after that.   And even if additional gas taxes were to be miraculously enacted, their effects would be masked by highly volatile gas prices that are presently more than $1 a gallon under their recent averages.

Gas Stations: An Overlooked Stage for Carbon Education?

Gas Stations: An Overlooked Stage for Carbon Education?

The gas station is the oil companies’ tentacle into the cars and pocketbooks of consumers.  Located at prominent street corners in nearly every neighborhood in the developed world, gas stations proudly carry the flag of Shell, Chevron, BP, and other oil giants into our communities.   The gas station would therefore appear to be an ideal stage for educating consumers about carbon pollution and its role in fomenting climate change, and for generating friction in the normally smooth transfer of carbon from the oil company to the gasoline consumer.

Despite their potential for education and advocacy, gas stations have rarely been utilized as a platform for protest, advocacy, or carbon education. Rather, with rare exception, they function quietly and efficiently as the oil companies’ community-based carbon spigot, their latent political, economic, and social significance cloaked by the numbing routine of pumping gas.

Is Naomi Klein Right–Do We Have to Take on Capitalism to Address Climate Change?

Is Naomi Klein Right–Do We Have to Take on Capitalism to Address Climate Change?

Naomi Klein argues in This Changes Everything that capitalism and the environment are on a collision course and that narrow measures to address climate change will be inadequate if free-market, corporate-dominated structures and political ideologies remain dominant.  She writes that the Right fully grasps the latent threat that climate change poses to the existing capitalist order, and that its need to squelch this threat explains the lavish financing it bestows on the climate denial movement.

Klein says that in the early stages of battling the present corporate-dominated order to address climate change, “a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good than, for instance, forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income,” and that “Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

Platinum Polluters: The relation between carbon emissions and income

Is there a relationship between carbon pollution and income? Do the wealthy pollute more? What does this mean for carbon policy? These are fair questions when we are asking everyone to change their consumption habits in order to fight climate change.

For starters let’s look at the largest contributor to consumer carbon emissions, automobiles. Wealthy Americans will often own two or more cars. They drive more and are not as worried about how much money they spend on gasoline. On the other hand, low-income Americans tend to drive less, and are much more careful on how they use fuel. The urban and suburban poor may not even own a car, and will likely rely more on alternative means of transportation such as bicycling, walking, and public transit.

Is it Time to Send in the Clowns?

Is it Time to Send in the Clowns?

How can deeply ingrained civic habits be changed?  How can the pessimism inherent in collective action problems be overcome?

Antanas Mockus, upon becoming mayor of Bogota, Colombia in 1995, confronted Bogota’s epidemic levels of traffic fatalities with a unique blend of statistical analysis, street and performance art, and civic education.  Statistical analysis told Mockus that the key to reducing traffic deaths (and improving traffic circulation) was getting drivers to stop before reaching crosswalks and getting pedestrians to only cross in crosswalks.   Rather than hiring legions of traffic police to write tickets to drivers and pedestrians who violated these norms, Mockus hired 40 made-up street mimes to stop cars and buses from entering crosswalks, and to poke fun at offenders of crosswalk rules.  The streets became a massive stage for lighthearted education about traffic norms, with jay-walkers,  crowds on the street, and the mimes all engaged in the performance, and television and other media drawn to the spectacle and amplifying its message. Bogota pedestrians and motorists adopted the norms promoted by the mimes, and traffic deaths began to fall, successes widely reported by the media. The mimes proved so successful that Bogota’s ranks of mimes increased to 400, and traffic deaths in the city plunged by more than 50%.

The Great Climate Movement Miscalculation

The Great Climate Movement Miscalculation

At the People’s Climate March, we didn’t hear much about the role of the consumer in reducing emissions. Why? In the mid-2000s, leading organizations in the climate movement such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club made a key decision:  carbon emissions reduction by individuals was to be de-emphasized as a climate reduction strategy.  Rather, organizing efforts would focus on promoting carbon-pricing legislation, blocking development of domestic fossil fuel resources and infrastructure such as the Keystone XL pipeline, and divestment from fossil fuel companies.

Climate movement leaders made the decision to de-emphasize consumer carbon reduction on the assumption that consumer-oriented strategies would achieve less carbon reduction than carbon-pricing legislation, and that focus on consumers would imply that consumers, and not the fossil fuel companies, had agency to reduce the climate problem. Climate leaders also believed that consumers’ willingness to act politically might be reduced if they were “turned off” or “guilt tripped” by activists asking them to cut and offset their carbon usage.

Our Atmospheric Commons Doesn’t Have to Be a Tragedy

Our Atmospheric Commons Doesn’t Have to Be a Tragedy

Worldwide annual CO2 emissions are about 35 billion tons and rising.  So what difference does it make if I ride my bike to work every day to avoid 5 tons of emissions this year, or if decide not to make that family trip to Hawaii because of the 20 tons of CO2 it will emit?  Even if I do make these sacrifices to reduce my carbon footprint, China’s emissions are increasing so fast that they will cancel my reductions out by a factor of millions.  I might as well just live my life and hope that our governments deal with the problem, or that a new technology comes along just in time to save the day.  And even if the Earth’s atmosphere becomes unlivable, there is nothing that I could have done about it.

Even for people deeply concerned about climate change, these attitudes are widespread and rational.  Why make a personal sacrifice when its effect on overall climate is negligible?  Even though my children and I would benefit from a cleaner atmosphere, we, and a billion other families, will get that benefit regardless of whether or not I personally “green up my act.”

Guilt, Celebrities, and Climate

Guilt, Celebrities, and Climate

During a recent trip to the Arctic with Greenpeace, the actress Emma Thompson said, “We’re told that it is all our fault, global warming—we want the fuel, we want our cars, and that the oil industry is merely responding to the needs of a greedy public.  But that’s simply not fair.  Most of us want to live cleaner lives, but our government doesn’t make these things easily available. . . We need electric cars to be cheaper and more accessible.”  She went on to say

Advertising and Climate: Who’s on Top?

Advertising and Climate: Who’s on Top?

Have you ever seen a television ad or billboard asking you to cut your carbon usage?  Aside from a very small amount of innocuous advertising promoting energy efficiency, the vast majority of energy-related advertising promotes fossil fuel usage.   The coal industry has spent tens of millions of dollars on its “clean coal” campaign.    Oil giants such as BP and Chevron and their front organizations spend lavishly promoting their commitment to “meeting America’s energy demand.”    Auto companies such as GM, Ford, Toyota, and Chrysler are all among the top 15 U.S. advertisers, each spending billions of dollars annually to promote their gasoline-burning cars.   Climate-denial organizations and politicians have

Consumer Education Key to Climate Policy Progress

Consumer Education Key to Climate Policy Progress

Getting consumers to accept personal responsibility for their carbon usage is a critical step in building a durable political coalition to address climate change.  Consumers who are concerned about their personal CO2 emissions are likely not only to reduce their emissions, they are much more likely to strongly back carbon taxes and other climate-friendly legislation.

Key messages of a consumer-directed campaign include

Carbon Education for Consumers

Carbon Education for Consumers

Strategies for reducing global warming have focused mostly on stopping large oil infrastructure projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline, enacting carbon pricing strategies such as cap and trade, and promoting divestment from carbon extraction businesses.  Relatively little attention has been paid to effectively promoting voluntary carbon use reduction by American consumers, even though changing consumer carbon usage patterns holds the potential for enormous carbon emissions reductions.   On a per capita basis, Americans emit

Do Gasoline Consumers Deserve a Free Pass?

Do Gasoline Consumers Deserve a Free Pass?

While public pressure mounts on universities and pension funds to divest from oil companies because of their role in causing global warming, consumers that buy gas from the oil companies are getting a free pass.   As long as a person isn’t driving a large SUV or Hummer, his or her gasoline usage is considered beyond reproach.  No moral stigma is attached to filling the gas tank up on a weekly basis, even though those 15 gallons of gas are releasing about 300 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.

There are four main reasons why personal gas consumption is not negatively judged—