Reclaiming Carbon Offsets

by Molly Aeck

While channel surfing a few months ago, I came across a Law & Order episode, in which the murder victim had been running a carbon credit scam… seriously. It’s no wonder that when people ask me what I do, I never tell them that I work for a “carbon credit” company or an “offset provider”. I awkwardly explain around these words like a game of $100,000 Pyramid, but am much less likely to trigger someone’s word-recall of a media story that dismissed offsets as a conspiracy. When I buy myself time to talk about my experience hunting down emission reductions, prior to introducing the buzzwords, the listener is usually more receptive to the logic behind using a market to uncover least-cost abatement opportunities.

It seems to me that in the three+ years I’ve worked for EcoSecurities public impressions of carbon offsetting have wavered dramatically. In 2005, the Clean Development Mechanism was the newest shiny tool for channeling investment from industrial countries to assist developing countries in leapfrogging dirty development. In 2007, a different company was going “carbon neutral” every day. But shortly thereafter came websites like CheatNeutral and reports dismissing the CDM as failed before we even had a chance to learn by doing. Now, US policy makers are designing cap and trade legislation as though the last decade of emissions trading never happened.

I would no sooner get into an argument about the superiority of a carbon market to a carbon tax than I would a debate about scientific evidence of global warming. Someone else can make the arguments with data and graphs. However, when I’m not busy avoiding the subject entirely, I am at times compelled to defend the CDM and the value of offsets from a purely experiential stand point.

My adventures in carbon trading began when I received a Fulbright scholarship to spend a year in the Philippines researching project financing for renewable energy. At that time, a 33 MW wind plant in Ilocos Norte was the first and only project to have obtained CERs in the country, but I visited with dozens of companies pursuing CER revenue to finance technologies ranging from bagasse co-gen at sugar mills to large-scale geothermal. It was on one such site visit that I was introduced to EcoSecurities, which owned anaerobic digester projects at 16 different piggeries.

I joined EcoSecurities as their local project manager in the Philippines and sought out to secure “host-nation approval” for these projects. Getting things in order was no easy task. I won’t get into details, but it involved calibrating biogas meters, hosting stakeholder meetings in rural barangay halls, training local “pollution control officers”, and navigating the nebulous world of environmental permitting in a developing country. I didn’t need a verification report to tell me that the emissions reductions from these projects were real – I took part every day in creating their additionality. I also experienced the desired co-benefits firsthand; the water was dramatically cleaner, the air smelled better, clean local electricity replaced dirty diesel trucked in by dirty diesel.

Today there are over 4,000 projects in the CDM pipeline and the World Bank estimates that by the end of 2008 the CDM had leveraged over $140 billion in clean energy investment to the developing world. In light of this, why at times is the concept of “offsetting” still dismissed as a distraction from real infrastructure change or an undeserved license for someone else pollute? Certainly there will always be examples of bad projects that slipped through the cracks, but what’s important is that the CDM motivated us to do something. It motivated us to put on our rain boots and tramp through pig sh*t. So to all of you out there who’s time and effort became part of a project’s additionality- when you use buzzwords like “carbon credits” and “offsets” to describe what you do, back them up with darn good explanation of what that means on the ground, so that someday soon these words can be attributed the tangible connotation they deserve. Until then, I hope there’s not another Law & Order episode where the crime drama involves carbon trading – I don’t think I could take it.

Molly Aeck is a Senior Client Manager for EcoSecurities based in San Francisco. She encourages you to check out EcoSecurities’ ProjectNet which brings the Philippine piggery and other offset projects to life through photographs, diary blogs, video footage, testimonials, location maps and project design documents (PDDs).

5 replies
  1. Ian
    Ian says:

    It's all too easy to focus on the offset projects that 'slipped through the cracks' – so it's nice to read a 'from the trenches' reminder that there are a lot of good projects out there too.

  2. sam
    sam says:

    I know several people involved in carbon offsets/reduction. They are some of the smartest, diverse-thinking people I know. So it is easy for me to trust the entire carbon-credits scene.Keep up the good work!

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