A United Nations-backed carbon-trading scheme in Europe, originally meant to combat global warming, has instead resulted in the release of more than half a billion additional tons of greenhouse gases, according to a new report.
The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) report released Monday found significant problems with the efficacy of carbon offsets. The researchers found issues with 75 percent of 872 million offsets, and point to a lack of oversight as the main problem.
“We know what rules are needed and then we need the political will to implement them,” Anja Kollmuss, one of the authors of the study, told Al Jazeera. “And so far this has been lacking.”
The Joint Implementation (JI) carbon-trading scheme, established under the Kyoto Protocol, may have “seriously undermined global climate action,” researchers said. Faults in JI have released 600 million tons of carbon dioxide more than if the scheme wasn’t in place, the report said.
"This study focuses on that part of JI that is not subject to international oversight, but is instead left up to the individual countries to administer and ensure integrity," Julia Justo Soto, head of the UN's Joint Implementation Supervisory Committee, said in a release Tuesday.
Soto recommended that the enforcement "mechanism in future be run under a single track with international oversight."
Carbon-trading markets let companies in certain industrialized countries earn the right to emit greenhouse gasses by funding offsets elsewhere, like cleaning up combustible piles of abandoned coal mine waste. In theory, this will keep the total emissions under goals set by the European Union, but the plan only works if the offsets make a legitimate reduction in emissions. The SEI study found many do not.
For some companies, buying the right to pollute with offsets is often cheaper than refurbishing their own polluting facilities — like coal-fired power plants or chemical plants that can emit greenhouse gasses more dangerous than carbon dioxide.
To Lukas Ross, a climate advocate at Friends of the Earth, the cap-and-trade system was doomed to fail from the start. He said it could even lead to environmental injustices.
“This is another nail in the coffin for Wall Streets solution to the climate crisis,” Ross said. He prefers a direct tax on carbon emissions.
“A carbon tax is much more simple to implement,” Ross added. “It effectively prices in the cost that climate disruption is going to inflict on present and future generations and incentivizes the consumption of clean renewables.”
An overwhelming majority of scientists agree that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are elevating average global temperatures and disrupting weather in dangerous and costly ways — from severe droughts and prolonged fire seasons to stronger storms and raging floods.
Since the start of the industrial revolution about 200 years ago, Earth’s average temperature has increased about 1 degree Celsius over preindustrial levels, and melting ice caps have raised the average sea level by about half a foot, according to the U.N. Such rapid changes are unprecedented in geological history.
Cutting emissions is essential to stemming the tide, but cheating undermines the process.
"Some early projects were of good quality, but in 2011-2012, numerous projects were registered in Ukraine and Russia which had started long before and were clearly not motivated by carbon credits," Vladyslav Zhezherin, one of the authors of the study, told the BBC.
"This was like printing money,” he added.
About 80 percent of carbon offsets claimed by polluters in Russia and Ukraine were found to be problematic, according to the SEI report.
The eeport comes just months before a December U.N. conference in Paris that climate advocates hope will result in a strong, binding agreement between countries to reduce emissions.
In a release, Lambert Schneider, another author of the study, said the way Russian and Ukrainian companies were gaming the system did far more harm than good.
At least one Russian chemical plant increased its emissions of two powerful greenhouse gasses, HFC-23 and Sulfur Hexaflouride, and then started to incinerate the pollutants in order to gain the carbon credits. Researchers said the action was counterproductive.
“If you produced more greenhouse gases only to destroy them and generate more carbon credits, you would essentially be damaging the climate for profit," Schneider said.