Carbon Consciousness & Action

Archive for the category “Carbon Offsets”

Interview with Michael Vandenbergh, Author of Beyond Gridlock

2013 Vandenbergh headshot cropped

Michael Vandenbergh

Last week I reviewed Beyond Gridlock,” a major new article by Michael Vandenbergh and Jonathan Gilligan concerning voluntary carbon reduction strategies.  This week, I interview Michael Vandenbergh about the ideas behind the paper.


MNM:  Why have consumer-oriented carbon reduction strategies been given so little attention relative to carbon pricing schemes? 

MV:  We all share a conceptual framework that assumes that the principal actor that can respond to climate change is government, and the principal actions are government regulation or a carbon price.  Even our vocabulary locks in this framework – terms such “policy,” “regulation,” and even “international” imply that government is the key actor.  This is buttressed by our tendency to pursue panaceas, as Elinor Ostrom noted, rather than to pursue multiple strategies when the policy plasticity [MNM: ability to implement] of the optimal strategy is low.

MNM What are the principal political obstacles to consumer-oriented voluntary carbon-reduction strategies?  Could the left and right rally together around such a campaign?  Why hasn’t it happened yet? 

MV:  The principal obstacles to private climate governance are not political – that’s part of the advantage of this strategy.  Government, and thus politics, can be bypassed.  The fact that private institutions and private markets are involved suggests that those with a conservative worldview may be less averse to this solution than to others, and that provides some room for optimism.  Note also that consumer-oriented carbon reduction strategies are only a small part of the private climate governance strategy that professor Gilligan and I outline in Beyond Gridlock. Often corporations and other private institutions reduce carbon emissions because of influences from investors, lenders, employees and others, even if consumers are not engaged.

MNM:  How would you assess the “carbon literacy” of the American public?  Is knowledge regarding the amount of carbon one emits in daily life a prerequisite for an effective private governance campaign for households?  What would a carbon literacy campaign look like? 

MV:  The carbon literacy of the public in the US and around the world varies a great deal, with some having a sophisticated understanding but many having little knowledge.  Shahzeen Attari and her colleagues have done great work on this, and they have found that people often overestimate visible forms of energy use and underestimate by many times their energy use from some household activities.  Similarly, our research team found that people think they should idle their cars for over four minutes if they want to save gas, when the right answer is ten to thirty seconds.  Over ten million tons of CO2 emissions are associated with this idling, an amount larger than several industrial sectors.  Addressing energy invisibility and correcting myths provide two areas of opportunity for private governance response, using information to drive behavior change without requiring altruism or support for climate mitigation.

MNM:  Are there/should there be limits (voluntary, moral, or otherwise) on the right of an individual to use and emit carbon?  How can the concept of limits on carbon usage gain currency?  

MV:  This is an important but complex issue, and we do not address it in this paper.  We do suggest a private climate registry as a way for people in this generation to tell future generations what they did in response to climate change.

MNM:  Should the government set a “Recommended Carbon Limit” similar to the FDA’s Recommended Daily Allowance?  Should consumers at least be advised by the government as to what a reasonable per person usage of carbon is? (Note: I just wrote a blog post on this topic

MV:  This is an interesting idea, but government action is not what we are focused on at this point.   The point of our Beyond Gridlock paper is that although there are many things government could do, most of them are not viable in the near term, and much of the population dismisses government as the messenger.  Yet we need to start bending down the carbon growth curve.  To analyze new initiatives, we suggest always accounting for the technical potential and behavioral plasticity of any action, as well as the policy plasticity of the initiatives that could induce behavior change.  A Recommended Carbon Limit probably scores well on the first two but not so well on the third.  Following the analysis we suggest in Beyond Gridlock, one approach would be for a well-respected private organization, not a government agency, to set a Recommended Carbon Limit.  That may be more viable in the near term and may allow the concept to be tested and shaped while government remains in gridlock.

MNM:  What single private governance initiative is the most exciting and has the most potential to make a significant impact? 

MV:  The increasing pressure on corporations to disclose the carbon emissions of their suppliers (often called “Scope 3” emissions) is an initiative that has a great deal of promise.  It has a large potential because a large share of all corporate emissions originate from suppliers, and if the buying firms demand carbon reductions from suppliers, the emissions reductions pressure can cross international borders to suppliers in other countries without any international agreement.  This is one of the few ways to create incentives for emissions reductions among small- and medium-sized companies in developed and developing countries.   We are also very excited about the idea of a private climate prediction market that would enable people to buy and sell predictions about the accuracy of the climate science and to say, “put your money where your mouth is” in climate debates.

MNM:  Many have written that the battle to prevent climate change is the equivalent for our generation of World War II, yet the level of complacency in this country is profound, even though 80% plus per the recent New York Times poll now understand that climate change is occurring and that it is man made.  What will it take to galvanize and mobilize the public to make the radical changes necessary to address the CO2 problem before it is too late?  Where do you see the leadership coming from? 

MV:  We think it is a mistake to assume that this mobilization must occur in the near term only through the traditional political processes that affect governments at the state, national, and international levels.  It is also a mistake to start with radical change.  When concern about a problem, such as climate change, is widespread but a low-priority preference for many people, the best response may be to try to buy time while a sufficient consensus develops and the barriers to government action are overcome.  We can achieve more than a billion tons of emissions reductions annually over the next decade by using private initiatives to address market failures and behavioral failures that are widespread around the globe.  The principal message of Beyond Gridlock is not that government action is not necessary but that it is a mistake to wait for the optimal government response.  Instead, we should be pursuing emissions reductions through public and private initiatives to buy time for a more comprehensive response.   The leadership to pursue a private climate governance strategy could come from advocacy group or corporate managers, philanthropists, or pundits, or it could emerge from people who are on the sidelines now but become motivated to do something about the issue.

MNM:  Where is your research and writing headed next in relation to carbon emission reduction strategies? 

MV:  We are continuing to identify new initiatives around the world that are reducing carbon emissions despite the government gridlock at the national and international levels.  Once you make the conceptual shift to understanding the role that private governance can play in reducing carbon emissions, it is remarkable how many examples you can see around the world, and how many new possibilities emerge.


Platinum Polluters: The relation between carbon emissions, and income.


By Guest Blogger Will Deacon

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.

The rich also fly more and take more out-of-state and out-of-country vacations. The top earners may even own a private jet. If you’re wealthy in the United States it’s also likely that you own a larger home. More square footage to your house means more space to heat in the winter and cool in summer.

It is not hard to see that the wealthy consume more and therefore contribute a greater amount of CO2 to the atmosphere. If those of greater means pollute more, is it not fair to ask them to sacrifice more for the sake of the planet and our future?

Some climate activists, and advocates of economic justice, have asked for a wealth tax. They believe that part of the revenue could be used to fight global climate change and lift some of the burden the poor will face because of it. But the amount of influence the rich in this country have over our politics makes such a proposal impossible and doesn’t address the fact that the rich will continue to pollute on a higher level.

To be fair, not every wealthy individual mindlessly emits a megaton of carbon dioxide. Some of the most notable of the upper class are fierce climate activists. On December 23, Leonardo DiCaprio, a Hollywood actor with a net worth of $220 million, spoke before the UN. He proclaimed that climate change is real and that the world must act to stop it.

Mr. DiCaprio is not the only celebrity to vocally state their support for the fight against climate change. Actress Cameron Diaz, singer, and, the richest of them all, Bill Gates, have all been active in the climate movement.

What if wealthy celebrities, such as those I’ve mentioned, showed off and bragged about how they use their wealth to reduce their carbon footprint. They could have tours of their homes in the style of MTV’s “Cribs”. The camera would follow them through their house as they show off their solar panels, their bamboo hardwood, their $100,000 Tesla electric car, etc…

There could also be campaigns where the wealthy compete for who can get their carbon emissions the lowest. They could brag about who gave more money to put solar panels on schools, as well as other carbon offsetting causes.

If we could make having a low carbon footprint just as much of a status symbol as owning a Gulfstream jet, the implications could go far beyond the wealthiest among us. Everyone at least once in their lifetime has dreamed of being rich and what that could mean for them. What if that also meant being able to do more to stop climate change?

Our Atmospheric Commons Doesn’t Have to Be a Tragedy

collective action image

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.”

Similar calculations are made by individuals, companies, industries, and countries the world over, and represent a major barrier to action on climate change.  No one wants to sacrifice unless everyone else is sacrificing, and many would prefer to be a “free rider” on sacrifices made by others.   Economists and social scientists refer to the refusal of individuals to give up a small individual benefit for a large collective benefit as a “collective action problem” or the “tragedy of the commons.”

Because of the widespread belief that the collective action problem makes voluntary approaches to carbon reduction impractical (or that focus on individual voluntary action will reduce pressure for institutional change), much of the focus on addressing carbon emissions has been on achieving global-level climate accords or national-level actions such as a federal carbon tax.  These supra-national or national-level efforts promised to avoid the collective action problem by imposing binding quotas and restrictions by ensuring that the sacrifice is borne by all.  Unfortunately, international climate negotiations and national carbon taxes have borne little fruit (in large part because of collective action problems occurring at the national and international levels.) Read more…

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:  “Each gallon of gas you use puts 20 pounds of CO2 into the air,” “the CO2 you put in the air stays in the air,” and “reduce the CO2 that you can, offset what you can’t.” Read more…

Can Carbon Offsets Make A Comeback

Carbon OffsetsCarbon 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 CO2 emissions 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. Read more…

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