Local papers are reporting that Burning Man is addressing its energy usage in a scheme called Cooling Man (coolingman.org) wherein Burners can pay for their energy usage by purchasing “carbon offsets” and reduce the festival’s global warming impacts. A fine idea, but the claim that participants will “offset” their global warming impact “the same way as a large corporations do” by investing in clean energy projects is not exactly correct. It hides the larger problem of current free-market answers to global warming.
While Burners are being asked to pay for their pollution, today’s increasingly internationalized carbon trading plans reward large corporate polluters with “carbon credits” based on their historical pollution levels, usually in tons, which they can then trade on the open market to other corporate polluters. Trading pollution credits in a market-based system includes the buying of so-called carbon sinks that are supposed to “sequester” CO2 and supporting no-greenhouse gas energy production. In the US, there is even an “acid rain” trading system for sulfur dioxide emissions.
Unfortunately, this plan financially compensates heavy polluters and only redistributes pollution by giving them credit for polluting in the first place.
Every American, as citizens of the country that spews more than a third the world’s pollution, is more or less responsible for a portion of the pollution our country produces. So, if we think about pollution trading in a more democratic way, why can’t each and every American, from the president on down to the newborn infant, be given a piece of the pollution market, just like the polluting corporations? We could each take responsibility for our own environmental footprint. By choice or by necessity we would be rewarded for living a low energy lifestyle.
I walk a lot and ride a bike to work. I haven’t owned a car in three years and haven’t flown in five. I eat low on the food chain and try to avoid products that add to air pollution. I took Al Gore’s test on my yearly CO2 production. The average in the USA is 15,000 pounds. Mine is far below average at about 2,100. In a personalized carbon trading scheme, I would be a rich man. I could sell my credits to my neighbor who drives an SUV and owns a speedboat. But we’d both be rich if we could barter our credits to industry.
Think this is a dream? Reuters reported in July that there are already proposals in the United Kingdom to do just that. Environment minister David Milband is studying the possibility of issuing consumers a personal energy use card representing a citizen’s portion of the entire pollution output of the UK. The card would be used as a debit card that track’s personal energy use. Use more, you would have to spend you carbon credits and perhaps buy more. Consume less and you could sell or bank your carbon credits, maybe even draw interest. You could trade your credits to a person who wants to travel on energy intensive modes of transport, eat meat, burn gas and oil and dry clothes in a clothes dryer instead of on a clothesline. And you would get healthier and slimmer for all the walking.
Another plan, similar but less personalized, would be to increase taxes, across the board or selectively based on social needs, on polluting activities while reducing taxes on non-polluting activities and things we want to support, like employment. This is called “true-cost pricing” but it only works if you earmark the funds for reinvestment into alternative energy projects. True-cost pricing would go a long way to rationalizing our insane energy economy where nobody, the corporation or the consumer, pays the costs of our American lifestyle. And for the free-marketeers, true-cost pricing can be seen as another market-force that will drive innovation and improve efficiency.
Hank Chapot is a Berkeley resident.