The world is in a need to urgently remove the excess greenhouse gases (GHGs) built up in the atmosphere and stop emitting more harmful emissions. California is one of the states committed to cutting GHGs but recent discoveries are questioning the efficiency of its climate action plan.
Back in 2013, the US state passed a landmark law that capped GHG emissions, but let companies offset their pollution by investing in carbon offset initiatives like forest preservation throughout the country. The idea of carbon offsetting is quite a popular way of tackling hard-to-abate CO2 emissions that cannot be eliminated right away from businesses. It provides some flexibility for companies trying to reduce CO2 emissions.
Cap and trade systems are becoming increasingly widespread around the world. The EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) was set up in 2005 and is the world’s first ETS scheme. China is also opening its own marketplace and Washington state is launching a carbon market modeled after California’s.
Is California Carbon Offset System Actually Working?
However, recent research and analysis of the carbon offset credits in California make shocking discoveries about their legitimacy. CarbonPlan – the non-profit data and science for climate action organization, released a comprehensive analysis of 65 Improved Forest Management (IFM) projects totaling 102 million upfront IFM credits.
The state’s forest carbon offsets program plays a critical role in the state’s cap and trade system and California’s climate change efforts. It is the largest such program in existence and is worth more than $2 billion.
The emissions trading system is open to all kinds of offset projects, but most credits do not come from growing new forests but instead from improved forest management practices. An IFM project could increase forest carbon storage through changes like increasing the length of timber harvest rotations.
CarbonPlan’s research shows that 29% of offset credits are actually overstated and do not reflect real climate benefits. That totals up to 30 million tons of CO2 equivalent worth approximately $410 million that were over-credited. That means money was paid for but CO2 hasn’t been removed from the atmosphere.
The data clearly shows that the scale of the problem is enormous and crediting errors like this significantly damage the efficiency of the emissions trading system.
Causes And Consequences
The analysis of the crediting errors conveys that one of the critical causes of that discrepancy is that the program awards “upfront” credits at the start of a project and those are responsible for more than half of the total carbon offsets program, and two-thirds of all forest credits.
There are also “baseline” scenarios representing the average amount of carbon that would remain under a typical harvest scenario. Those baseline scenarios aim to prevent unrealistic numbers. The system also requires the average carbon stored in a baseline scenario to stay above a value called “common practice”.
As a result, about 90% of projects report baseline averages that are equal to or within just 5% of the minimum common practice number. Therefore, the crediting is determined almost entirely by the value of the common practice. If it is set too low, that means projects are getting excess credits and if it is too high, that implies under-crediting.
The analysis sums up that accountability and rigorous rules that eliminate such destructive practices are needed for the cap and trade system to provide better climate benefits for the community.
Fires Are Burning Trees And Cash
However, in reality, there is further evidence of California’s unsuccess to enforce climate change actions that manage to deliver actual carbon reduction. Back in 2018 when a fire destroyed a forest issuing carbon credits to polluters, the state of California still accepted those credits even though the fire made them absolutely useless.
It turns out that California had based its decision on the state of the forest before the fire and the polluters got away without offsetting those emissions.
The case also raises questions of whether offsetting carbon emissions via forest conservation projects is an efficient way of tackling global warming. We live in times when the climate is changing and wildfires and droughts are expected to increase in the future. The forest carbon offset projects risk defunct if wildfires globally continue at the current pace. Current wildfires in California also reveal that.
A paper published in 2020 assesses the climate-driven risks to carbon offset projects and confirms exactly that. California’s carbon offset projects are currently designed to set aside 2 to 4% of their forests as excess woodlands to account for emissions released from forest fires for example.
The paper, however, led by William Anderegg – an associate professor from the University of Utah, shows that those percentages are nowhere near enough to cover emissions losses from fires. The numbers show the risk of moderate and severe wildfires driven by climate change across the United States has doubled between 1984 and 2000.
Events from this year alone also confirm the need for a higher buffer pool. The carbon offsets from almost a quarter of the Klamath East project in Oregon and 12% of the Colville project in Washington state were destroyed due to blazes.
“We’ve bought forest offsets that are now burning…We don’t want this to force us to pull out of investing in nature-based solutions… [but companies must] get really smart about what the risks are,” said Elizabeth Willmott, Microsoft’s carbon program manager, at a carbon removal panel earlier this month.
Climate Action Plan And Policies
California, however, still aims to lead the world in climate change action despite those severe issues. A few days ago, Governor Newsom signed a Climate Action Bill highlighting over a $15 billion package to mitigate climate change risks and enhance climate resilience. That is a historic investment – in fact, the largest climate change package issued by the state so far.
The package is supposed to fund climate change mitigation strategies like building wildfire and forest resilience, long-term water resilience, supporting immediate drought response, and protecting communities across the state from multi-faceted climate risks like the extreme heat and sea-level rise.
The state also passed a carbon sequestration bill called SB 27 that aims to establish carbon sequestration targets for natural and working lands by July 2023. That is in an effort to utilize natural ways of reducing emissions like enhancing soil carbon sequestration, to help with the climate change fight.
The CO2 removal targets would need to be established by 2030 and beyond and aim to facilitate the state’s goal of cutting at least 40% of greenhouse gas emissions below the 1990 level by 2030.
A key city in California – San Diego recently announced its own climate action plan called the Climate Resilient SD plan. It outlines four primary climate change hazards that pose a risk to San Diego. Those risks are sea-level rise, wildfires, extreme heat, and flooding/drought. Various actions are pointed out that can be taken to tackle those hazards along with pros and cons and costs.
The state is pushing towards climate change action and California’s climate change legislation is designed to push towards a 40% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2030.
However, the state also experiences several problems regarding whether or not the climate action plan actually works and how to fix the practices that don’t provide the expected results. Carbon errors were identified in the cap and trade system if the factors allowing for those errors are not eliminated, the efficiency of the whole scheme is highly jeopardized.
According to many analysts though, the flaws in climate change strategies like the cap and trade system reveal one core problem – companies are choosing to invest in offsets because it allows them to avoid the difficult but more important work of fully eliminating their emissions.
The science community is unanimous that carbon offset programs should not be used to prolong the complete transition towards net zero.
No amount of political tweaks or offset recalculations can compensate fully for the fact that a complete change of current business as usual practices like burning fossil fuels that our economy is built upon, actually needs to happen to save the world from the worst consequences of climate change and start reversing it in time.