Many critics of market-based pollution reduction mechanisms such as emissions trading focus their criticism on the negative social outcomes whereby companies pass on all their emissions costs to the consumer, or the various loopholes and scams by which they get around seriously implementing emissions reductions. Carbon offsets are mostly used as a kind of accounting trick to pretend that using fossil fuels is OK, and passing costs on to consumers means that the companies that have profited from polluting practices in the past can continue to operate by passing on as much as possible the costs of cleaning up to people who have not profited and may even have suffered the adverse effects of the pollution.All this is worthy of criticism and does much to make emissions trading schemes ineffectual and unfair. But a more fundamental question needs to be asked: even if safeguards are put in place to avoid the pitfalls and ameliorate the inequitable social outcomes – can emissions trading actually steer industry to a carbon-neutral future and avert a global warming catastrophe? Is it up to the job?
The current debate around the recommendations of the Garnaut report centres on differences like whether fuel should be included or not (with social justice being a key concern)and whether companies should be allocated initial carbon credits based on their past use, or if they should be forced to buy their emissions permits in an auction.What isn’t discussed is whether emissions trading can actually turn around a large and powerful fossil-fuel based industrialized economy to abandon fossil fuels. An emissions trading scheme that would avert global warming must cut back greenhouse gas emissions by the necessary amount, and in the appropriate time frame, while allowing the necessities of our life and culture to continue to be produced in some form.
This pressure is what makes it very difficult to imagine any market-based mechanism being up to the job. To seriously avert environmental catastrophe, we must reduce not just emissions, but the amount of greenhouse gases already in the air, and quickly so that dangerous tipping points are not reached which will create a cascading series of feedbacks that make climate change ever deeper and irreversible.Renowned
Biosequestration methods are often seen as a perfect opportunity for carbon offsets in a carbon trading system where companies earn credits to continue other polluting practices by simultaneously investing in these offsetting projects. But this assumes that the other polluting practices are affordable in some quantity. In the case of climate change, this is not true.An example cited in Sharon Beder’s book “Environmental Principles & Policies” (UNSW, 2006) is the contrast between the German and US programs to eradicate acid rain. The German scheme aimed to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 90% between 1983 and 1998. The
What this means is that emissions trading schemes are only likely to function where they are to achieve relatively minor, and slow, reductions. Of course, the general consensus of government is that this is all that is acceptable because anything more threatens the profitability of the giant coal and mining companies that call the shots in
Traditionally, such big projects have been achieved by government. In