The Dark Side of Carbon Credits

The Dark Side of Carbon Credits January 25, 2009

The hydroelectric dam, a low wall of concrete slicing across an old farming valley, is supposed to help a power company in distant Germany contribute to saving the climate — while putting lucrative “carbon credits” into the pockets of Chinese developers.

But in the end the new Xiaoxi dam may do nothing to lower global-warming emissions as advertised. And many of the 7,500 people displaced by the project still seethe over losing their homes and farmland.

The dam will shortchange German consumers, Chinese villagers and the climate itself, if critics are right. And Xiaoxi is not alone.

Similar stories are repeated across China and elsewhere around the world, as hundreds of hydro projects line up for carbon credits, at a potential cost of billions to Europeans, Japanese and soon perhaps Americans, in a trading system a new U.S. government review concludes has “uncertain effects” on greenhouse-gas emissions.

“The CDM” — the 4-year-old, U.N.-managed Clean Development Mechanism — “is an excessive subsidy that represents a massive waste of developed world resources,” says Stanford University’s Michael Wara.

Forced relocations have become common in China as people in hundreds of communities are moved to clear land for factories and other projects, provoking anger and occasionally violent protests. But what happened here is unusual in highlighting not just the human costs, but also the awkward fit between China’s authoritarian system, in which complaints of official abuse abound, and Western environmental ideals.

The CDM allows industrial nations, required by Kyoto to reduce emissions of gases blamed for global warming, to comply by paying developing nations to cut their emissions instead.

Companies thousands of miles away, such as Germany’s coal-burning, carbon dioxide-spewing RWE electric utility, accomplish this by buying carbon credits the U.N. issues to clean-energy projects like Xiaoxi’s. The proceeds are meant to make such projects more financially feasible.

As critics point out, however, if those projects were going to be built anyway, the climate doesn’t gain, but loses.

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  • S.B.

    And so we see the effects of capitalism on the Third World.

  • Zak

    I’m very skeptical about the merits of carbon offsets. In theory, it sounds like a good idea to allocate resources to where carbon emissions can be reduced most efficiently, but in practice, there seem to be tons of problems.