A Controversial California Effort To Fight Climate Change Just Got Some Good News


Publish Date:
August 21, 2017
  • Harvey, Chelsea
The Washington Post
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A controversial California climate program got a shot of good news this month when a study suggested it is successfully reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and providing other environmental benefits on the side.

The study, conducted by a trio of Stanford University researchers, concerns a California “carbon offset” program, which allows companies to pay to preserve carbon-storing forests instead of reducing their own emissions. According to the researchers’ findings, that program is protecting imperiled forests and preventing the carbon they store from being released into the atmosphere.

“I think this kind of work is really important in the sense that it’s looking closely at what is actually happening as we develop carbon markets,” said Michael Wara, a former climatologist and environmental law expert at Stanford University. Wara was not involved with the new research, but helped advise the development of the proposal that extended California’s existing cap-and-trade scheme.

“I don’t think there’s enough evidence in this paper to know whether it’s a good thing or bad thing,” Wara said.

Wara pointed out critics of the program still have some valid concerns, emission reductions aside. While it’s true that forest offsets make up a fraction of the credits used in California’s cap-and-trade scheme, it does mean that some companies are using it to put off reducing their own emissions, meaning they’re probably not reducing their production of other air pollutants either.

“In some sense, forest carbon is trading one kind of co-benefit for another kind of co-benefit,” Wara said. “It’s not strictly a benefit, it’s a trade-off, because we’re going to burn more carbon in California in exchange for storing more carbon elsewhere.” Some of the fiercest critics of forest offsets are often people who live in or advocate on behalf of communities that are disproportionately affected by air pollution, he added.

The concept of a carbon offset is “a super complicated thing to get right,” Wara noted. “And it’s something that it appears, based on the evidence in this paper, that California may have gotten mostly or more or less right. I don’t think it’s an open and shut case, but this paper has evidence that’s suggestive of that fact.”

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