Author Archives: BlueCOP

Big Ocean States have Big Ideas on Carbon Markets, Adaptation, and Loss and Damages

On December 3, 2019, the Vermont Law School COP25 student delegation started covering both negotiations and various side events of interest to small island nations. The primary focus of the day was the still unresolved details of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Article 6 is one of the most complex and obscure concepts of the Paris Agreement and has been an unresolved issue since 2015 because it is contentious and has wide-reaching implications. Generally, Article 6 will establish an international carbon market. Three main sections of Article 6 are up for discussion: 6.2, 6.4, and 6.8. First, Article 6.2 pertains to an accounting framework for international cooperation and allows for countries with existing carbon trading networks to link their emission schemes. Second, Article 6.4 covers the establishment of a central United Nations mechanism to trade credits from emission reductions achieved through implementation of specific projects. Finally, Article 6.8 recognizes a work program for non-market approaches, such as applying a carbon tax. Pre-negotiations started last week and will continue through December 9, 2019.

Student delegates at COP25. Top, l-r: Gillian Cowley, Naveed Nanjee, Ashli Taylor. Bottom, l-r, Antonia Douglas and Jordan Stone.

Student delegates at COP25. Top, l-r: Gillian Cowley, Naveed Nanjee, Ashli Taylor. Bottom, l-r, Antonia Douglas and Jordan Stone.

Another primary focus here at COP25 is all things ocean. Referred to as the Blue COP, small island nations have led the way here at COP25 in communicating that we must continue to reduce emissions, and we cannot look to the ocean to solve our climate emergency. The current state of our ocean’s health is a symptom of the international communities’ failure to act. In many negotiations and most side events attended by student delegates, the role of the ocean has been central to the dialogue.

Beyond the Article 6 negotiations discussed above, student delegates tracked the issue of Adaptation, which is divided into two main topics: (1) what to do to prepare for impacts associated with climate change (e.g., sea level rise, increased storminess, erosion) and (2) what to do in response to impacts already occurring. In a perfect world, vulnerable countries would be able to prepare for the impacts of climate change through adaptation and then could respond to those impacts through a loss and damage mechanism. But those coastal nations on the front lines of the climate emergency must both prepare for, and respond to, the effects of climate change simultaneously, and with limited financial resources.

The Blue COP

The Blue COP

According to the UNFCC, adaptation refers to adjustments in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts. Further, it refers to changes in processes, practices, and structures to moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated with climate change. The informal consultations regarding National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) commenced December 3, 2019. Under the Cancun Adaptation Framework, NAPs were established to enable Parties to identify and address medium and long-term adaptation needs. The planning process is continuous, progressive, and iterative, and allows for a country-driven, gender-sensitive, participatory, and transparent approach. Since last year’s COP24, the focus has been on identifying and addressing the gaps and needs of countries in implementing their NAPs. Yesterday’s negotiations centered primarily on process, and financing mechanisms were of interest to many parties.

The first negotiations of WIM taking place.

The first negotiations of WIM taking place.

Many small island nations must also consider what to do in response to loss and damage from impacts associated with climate change in parallel with how to prepare for a more resilient future. Created six years ago at COP19, the Warsaw International Mechanisms for Loss and Damage (WIM) addresses loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change, including extreme events and slow onset events, in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. The goal of this week’s WIM negotiations is to come to agreement regarding the implementation of approaches to address loss and damage associated with climate change. Expressing some concern over the lack of time—and lack of representation—parties also continued the dialogue over whether loss and damage should be narrowly focused on financial needs or expand to cover adaptation measures.

While Vermont Law was busy with negotiations, student delegates also made time to go to several side events on topics ranging from Fossil Fuels to the Ocean. Stay tuned as we continue our daily posts on what is happening here in Madrid. #TimeForAction.



Making Waves at COP 25: Calls for Action and Stronger Commitments

Let us open our ears to the multitudes who are demanding change.
Let us open our eyes to the imminent threat facing us all.
Let us open our minds to the unanimity of the science.
There is no time and no reason to delay.
We have the tools, we have the science, we have the resources.
Let us show we also have the political will that people demand from us.
To do anything less will be a betrayal of our entire human family and all the generations to come.

– H.E. Mr. António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Stations

Secretary General to the United Nations, António Guterres, closed his opening remarks to the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Climate Change Convention with a call for action. This call to action, this urgency, is without doubt the tone that Chile has chosen to set for COP25, the Blue COP.

The walkway guiding attendees to the registration desk is lined with slogans calling for new rhetoric at today’s COP—one drawing our attention from change, to emergency. The mission of this year’s COP Presidency is clear: to respond to the protests raging across the globe, to integrate science into policy, to tackle the world’s addiction to coal, to strengthen commitments to emissions reductions, and to abandon the UNFCCC’s incremental approach for one that is “transformational.”


The side events we attended as a group during our first 12 hours at COP held true to this message. The first, Global Climate Action: Indigenous Rights, Territories & Resources, turned attendees attention to the link between consumption in one nation and exploitation in another. With heavy emphasis of the negative effect of globalization, of the links between excessive consumption and human rights violations down the supply chain. In particular, the panelists discussed the devastating impacts the raging forest fires have had on the Amazon, and many indigenous communities whose lives and livelihoods depend on it.

Los incendios forestales tienen en llamas el pulmón del mundo
(Forest fires have the lungs of the world on fire)

Using the Amazon as a key example, each panelist emphasized the global nature of today’s local issues. The panelists concluded with a call for immediate global collective action to support and fight for indigenous rights.

The panelists featured in Nature Based Solutions: Integrating Coastal Ecosystems in 2020 NDCs mirrored the urgent calls for action expressed by both the Secretary General and the representatives from indigenous communities in Latin America. In his opening remarks for the panel, the Ambassador to the Seychelles emphasized the theme of COP25—year of ambition.

From a technical, scientific perspective, the panelists in this side event discussed the key function coastal wetlands (mangroves, sea grasses, and salt marshes) play in both mitigation and adaptation. But from a more political and general perspective, the panelists spoke to the power that Small Island Developing States (SIDS)—or as the Ambassador to the Seychelles, referred to them, Big Ocean States (BOS)—wield as a result of being both at the forefront of the battle against climate change as well as holding tremendous potential to mitigate the impacts of climate change by protecting the ocean, a carbon sink.

A panelist representing the interests of the Bahamas gave the most inspirational lecture of the day. She spoke of her personal experiences in the Bahamas, from July to September, when she and thousands of others live in fear of a hurricane, like Dorian, sweeping through the 14 islands of the Bahamas, wiping out infrastructure, flooding the streets, and leaving little but desolation in its wake. She called for the COP to be realistic about our future; about the fact that SIDS produce less the 1% of global emissions yet pay the highest price; about the fact that adaptation is not enough; about how only commitments to rapid and significant cuts in global emissions will save the lives of billions; and about how “the planet needs to understand, that there is no planet B.”

The negotiations over the next two weeks will reflect whether the content and outcomes of the agreements and debates reflect the sense of urgency in the air at the opening of COP25.


COP25 Day 1 Pictures

COP25 Day 2 Pictures

Lorenzo Quinn's Sculpture

Lorenzo Quinn’s Sculpture

Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Henry Puna, speaking at a side event

Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Henry Puna, speaking at a side event

The "Blue Pacific Continent"

The “Blue Pacific Continent”

Students meet every morning to discuss client priorities and plan for the day ahead

Students meet every morning to discuss client priorities and plan for the day ahead



Seychelles Ambassador, Ronny Jumeau, speaking at a side event on nature based solutions

Seychelles Ambassador, Ronny Jumeau, speaking at a side event on nature based solutions

COP25’s Move to Spain: Leaving Civil Society Out in the Cold?

On October 30th, the Chilean government announced it would no longer host COP25 which was to be held in Santiago, due to security concerns stemming from mass protests. The protests are a response to the country’s rising cost of living and increasing levels of inequality, which are some of the highest in the world. Protestors are demanding systemic change and better social conditions, including, among many other demands, higher pensions and wages, and affordable healthcare and education. After Chile’s withdrawal as a host for COP25, Madrid offered to host the event, with Chile still as the president-designate of COP25. This last-minute venue change to Madrid was a cause of serious concern for many Chilean environmentalists, scientists and NGOs. Many civil society groups, particularly Latin American groups, fear that this will mean that civil society won’t have an adequate platform at this year’s COP. What impact will this shift have, if any, on the role civil society are able to play at COP25 and the focus on issues of inequality?

“Chile woke up” has been the rallying call of protestors against the government and growing inequality. Cameramemories, Flickr

“Chile woke up” has been the rallying call of protestors against the government and growing inequality. Cameramemories, Flickr

Civil society groups, one type of non-state actor, have for some time played a significant role in the making and implementation of international environmental law, and in global level climate negotiations more generally. They have played a powerful role as observers, and have released analyses and reports that offer useful perspectives on the information governments have provided with respect to their contributions. This type of support has enabled stakeholders, including other parties, civil society organizations, and concerned citizens to form their own views on the level of ambitions parties claiming.

One of the main goals of COP25 was to ensure the open and transparent participation of civil society. A number of civil society organizations in Chile were included in the COP25 committee and helped design a civil society environmental summit space to be created in the “Green Zone” (which was to be open to everyone and located directly next to the official negotiating space). These groups, which included Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance, Climate Action Network Latin America, Asociacion Ambiente y Sociedad, and La Ruta del Clima, amongst others, stated that they were not consulted in the government’s decision to withdraw form hosting COP25. They view this decision as a “barrier to the effective participation of civil society organizations and indigenous peoples in climate change processes and actions,” one that completely disregarded the efforts, time and resources that local and regional civil society and non-profit organizations have invested in planning for this COP to make the international community aware of the socio-environmental impacts of climate change on Chile and the Latin American region.

These organizations are not alone in expressing their concerns. Greenpeace Chile’s national director also expressed similar concerns, indicating that Chile’s withdrawal from hosting COP25 expressed a reluctance to fully engage civil society organizations in the international climate dialogue. In the same press release, Chile also stated that the move of the COP from Chile to Madrid “must not stop the debate in Chilean society on environmental and social injustice.” Maisa Rojas, the director of Chile’s Center for Climate Science and Resilience and the COP25 scientific coordinator, also expressed similar concerns. She noted the importance of ensuring engagement of civil society, and highlighted the interlinked nature of issues of inequality and climate change. The director of the Chilean chapter of the World Wildlife Fund said that even though the Chilean delegation aims to still focus on equity in climate issues, he fears that the move will likely dampen the focus on inequality.  He stated that “we’re moving to an environment where we aren’t going to be subjected to any protesting of a significant nature…so essentially, we don’t get to see that reality of what inequality is triggering.”

The People's Summit 2019 brings together organizations and social articulations from various territories and sectors of the world, to share experiences and promote alternative solutions to the system and strengthen global organization and local action to stop the socio-environmental catastrophe.

The People’s Summit 2019 brings together organizations and social articulations from various territories and sectors of the world, to share experiences and promote alternative solutions to the system and strengthen global organization and local action to stop the socio-environmental catastrophe.

For these reasons, many civil society organizations will still be sending delegations to Santiago, in addition to the delegations they will be sending to Madrid. Organizations such as the Climate Justice Alliance, Friends of the Earth International, Grassroots Global Justice, Right to the City, and Indigenous Environmental Network will be joining Combre de los Pueblos, which is scheduled for Dec 2 to 7. An agenda is set to discuss climate justice issues including support for popular movements in the Americas, deep engagement with international allies, political education and leadership development, and just transition, in hopes to bridge the gap between the official COP25 in Madrid and the unofficial civil society COP events still taking place in Chile.

Bringing Climate Action a Little Closer to Home – Subnational & Non-State Actions in Vermont

On November 4, 2019, the U.S. submitted to the United Nations a formal notification of its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. This formal notification officially initiates the process of withdrawal, which will take effect one year from the delivery of the notification. The timing of this withdrawal is significant because in 2020, countries are expected to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement and to submit their long-term low-emission strategies to the United Nations. This Trump Administration decision was strategically aimed at avoiding submitting its contributions. However, according to a press statement by the Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, the U.S. will still contribute to international climate discussions, and pledges to continue to work with global partners to enhance resilience to the impacts of climate change, and prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

You may be wondering how the country could still contribute to the international response to climate change. One means of contribution is through the efforts of non-state and subnational actors. Non-state and subnational actors can include cities, states, regions, private companies, investors, foundations, civil society organizations and cooperative initiatives. These types of actors, from across the U.S., have been stepping up in response to the lack of commitment to the international climate change agenda exhibited by this administration. This year, the U.S. Department of State is expected to send only a small team of negotiators to the UN climate talks in Madrid, Spain. However, many subnational and non-state actors will be present, and showcase their efforts to implement their own individual climate targets.

Where does Vermont stand in all of this, and what role has it played as a subnational when the federal administration retreats from its international climate change commitments? Well, Vermont is taking action on a number of issues and at various levels, including state, local and the private sector. Vermont was one of the first States, headed by Republican Governor Phil Scott, to join the U.S. Climate Alliance in 2017, a coalition of States that have pledged to continue working towards the goals of the Paris Agreement. But even before joining the Alliance, Vermont had already been taking action. While action towards achieving climate change goals at the international level may seem remote and far removed from daily life, these initiatives are examples of how local planning and decision-making can shape the larger fight against climate change. Here are some of the efforts and initiatives across the State working towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and addressing climate challenges:

State Level Efforts

Comprehensive Energy Plan – In 2016, Vermont established new planning goals for reducing emissions from energy use, setting a goal of 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions levels by 2030, and an 80 to 90% reduction by 2050. Achieving these goals requires change across all sectors, and the State has planned for changes in agriculture, forestry, transportation, waste management and energy to achieve these goals. The plan focuses on an energy revolution from renewable sources.


Vermont’s energy flows in 2015, with paths forward to 2025, 2035, and 2050.


Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) –  Vermont is part of a regional collaboration working towards improving transportation, developing the clean energy economy, and reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector through a “cap and invest” system. As part of this collaboration, the State is developing a proposal for an investment plan that would ensure low-income residents in rural and urban areas access to affordable transportation and services. The investment plan include incentives for electric vehicles and other vehicle efficiency programs, expanded investments in transit, and incentives to influence land use decisions that decrease demand for single occupancy vehicles.


An overview of the regional TCI “cap and invest” system that would drive down the price of compliance with transit air pollution reduction mechanisms.

City Level Efforts 

Burlington Climate Action Plan – The City, with significant input from the community, developed a climate action plan with over 200+ proposed climate change mitigation strategies.  These strategies cover various areas, including renewable energy, energy efficiency, transportation, mixed use development, policy, research & education, urban forestry & sequestration, water reduction & recycling, and local food production.

Net Zero Energy Roadmap – Released early this year, the roadmap is one of the most ambitious local climate agendas in the country. The roadmap identifies 4 key pathways to get to a Net Zero Energy city by 2030. These pathways include efficient electric buildings, electric vehicles, implementing a district energy system, and providing alternative methods of transportation.

Private Sector Efforts 

Vermont Climate Pledge Coalition – This coalition represents a group of organizations from across the State committed to meeting Vermont’s energy and climate goals. Founded in June 2019, the coalition had 32 founding members from educational institutions such as the University of Vermont, and Vermont Technical College, nonprofits such as the ECHO Center, and private businesses such as Burton and Seventh Generation.

Vermont’s Youth Pass Historic Climate Declaration

On September 20th, 2019, thousands of Vermonters of all ages walked out of class and walked out of work to protest inaction of our global leaders in the face of climate change. This day sparked something in Vermont’s youth—it was the beginning of a new movement.

The 171 student delegates of the first Vermont Youth Climate Congress gather on the steps of the Statehouse in Montpelier just before unanimously passing the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration

The 171 student delegates of the first Vermont Youth Climate Congress gather on the steps of the Statehouse in Montpelier just before unanimously passing the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration

Inspired by the Youth Climate Strike, 171 young Vermonters convened at the Statehouse for the first ever Vermont Youth Climate Congress. These student delegates hailed from 43 middle schools, high schools, colleges, and one law school (Vermont Law, of course). The idea to hold Vermont’s first Youth Climate Congress grew from a desire to do something more than protest – a desire to create that which students felt Vermont’s Legislators have thus far failed to do. Thus, on November 17th, 2019, Vermont’s next generation of voters and leaders drafted, amended, and unanimously passed the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration.

The Congress was organized by Vermont Youth Lobby, and spearheaded by two incredible young women who are currently high school seniors. Planning for the Congress had been underway for weeks – the Environmental Law Society (ELS) at Vermont Law became involved a month before the Congress took place. Representatives from ELS joined Youth Lobby members as well as staff from VPIRG at planning meetings every two weeks leading up to the Congress, were up late into the night on conference calls with the organizers the week of the event, and drafted much of the language of the Declaration, as well as multiple memos on Climate Justice, Resilience, and Infrastructure.

The ten delegates from the Environmental Law Society at Vermont Law School

The ten delegates from the Environmental Law Society at Vermont Law School

As organizers of a brand new event that had never been experimented with before—gathering almost 200 students of ages 11 to 25 in a statehouse to pass a complicated declaration on the climate emergency—participants had no idea what to expect from the Congress. The day opened with inspiring remarks from you young organizers, followed by a roll call of the schools, and a statement acknowledging the that the land upon which the Statehouse sits belongs to the Abenaki tribe.

Participants then broke into small committee sessions to discuss, consider and amend the language of the Declaration. The topics of the Committees were Transportation, Energy, Climate Justice, Just Transition to a Green Resilient Economy, and Agriculture. The expectation was for Committee Chairs to discuss the relevant solutions in the Declaration and to answer any questions that the younger delegates might have – what actually happened was incredible. Every single Committee discussed the content of the solutions and the issues Vermont needs to tackle, and every Committee amended the language of document with precision and attention to detail. For example, the Agriculture Committee payed specific attention to the economic struggle Vermont farmers face in tackling climate change, and thus amended the language to provide “economic incentives and educational support” for farmers as they respond to climate change. To see a sixth grader in heated debate with a college junior over the use of the term “regenerative agriculture” instead of “sustainability” was to find hope that the next generation of leaders is prepared for the issues they—we—face.

Co-Chairs of the Youth Climate Congress share opening remarks with the delegates and representatives from the Climate Solutions Caucus of the Vermont Legislature

Co-Chairs of the Youth Climate Congress share opening remarks with the delegates and representatives from the Climate Solutions Caucus of the Vermont Legislature

The day ended, unexpectedly, on the steps of the Statehouse after the building had to be evacuated. Students cried a resounding, unanimous “Aye!” to pass the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration as amended in committee.

The Congress was more than a cry for action; it was a celebration of empowerment. Young students acknowledged the impact that they can have upon a system that often labels them as too young or too inexperienced to participate. Students were angry, but hopeful; frustrated but inspired. This inspiration caught the attention of many Vermonters: Senator Bernie Sanders said of the event:

Young people understand all too well that they will be the generation most affected by the devastating consequences of climate change . . . . I am especially proud of young Vermonters for keeping up the fight . . . [and] I am enormously pleased to see the tremendous leadership from young people in Vermont and beyond.

The Youth Climate Congress marks the beginning of a new wave of youth organizing and action in response to climate change. The delegates will convene again in early January to present the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration to the Legislature and to demand action. Vermont’s youth are a model for the rest of the country. They are taking a stand and demanding action: the Declaration sets forth that “the people who have the power to make these decisions will not be around to face the consequences of inaction, and that is why we, the youth, demand to be heard.” These inspiring, intelligent, and resilient leaders will fight until our state and nation act. As the Declaration concludes: “we are facing an urgent and unprecedented global emergency. Vermont must play a role in the fight to end climate injustice, and as its youth we are demanding that our government do their part.”


OK, Boomer: The Climate Crisis and the Generation Gap

Earlier this month, Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old member of New Zealand’s parliament, was giving a speech on her country’s proposed Zero Carbon Law when she was interrupted by an older male colleague – “OK, Boomer,” she retorted.

The gibe drew media attention from the U.S. to Canada, the UK, France, India, China, and beyond. What was it about those two words—“OK, Boomer,” offhand and nearly inaudible—that caught the world’s attention? The phrase is four years old, but on Nov. 7, it went viral, and seemed to have hit a nerve. Some conservatives called the expression ageist. One talk-show host even compared the phrase to the “n-word,” drawing a quick rebuke from

Media outlets leapt into the “OK, Boomer” debate. “Now it’s war,” declared an article in The New York Times, “Generation Z has finally snapped over climate change and financial inequality.”

Despite Swarbrick’s heckler, New Zealand’s Zero Carbon law passed nearly unanimously. Here in the U.S., our youngest-ever congresswoman made a “Green New Deal” her very first piece of legislation – even though the scope of the “green dream or whatever they call it” struck many senior Democrats as prohibitive. Why do young people seem so much more focused on climate change? What does “OK Boomer” have to do with the issue, anyway?

Last year, a Gallup poll uncovered a “global warming age gap.” Americans aged 18-34 were reported to be 75 percent more likely to see global warming as a serious threat than the 55-and-older demographic. They were also 36 percent more likely to believe in human-caused climate change, and more than 50 percent more likely to think global warming had been underrepresented in the news. (Although often used interchangeably, the term “climate change” was designed to include a broader variety of impacts than simple “global warming,” such as extreme weather patterns.)

This generation gap may be partly due to life expectancy. For example, an American born in 1960 can expect to live until about 2030, but the most extreme impacts of climate change may not be felt until 2050 or beyond. Members of Generation Z born after the year 2000 can expect to live beyond 2075, if global climate collapse doesn’t kill them first.

Responding to allegations of ageism from her older colleagues, Swarbrick, the New Zealand parliamentarian, was unapologetic: “Today I have learnt that responding succinctly and in perfect jest to somebody heckling you about *your age* as you speak about the impact of climate change…makes some people very mad. So I guess millennials ruined humour. That, or we just need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and abstain from avocados.”

Whatever the cause of the generation gap, it has never been clearer that at its heart, the international climate movement is a youth movement. From the global climate strike and school walkout to the members of Extinction Rebellion, youths have been at the forefront of climate activism.

“OK, millennials. But we’re the people that actually have the money,” responded one AARP executive, without a hint of irony. But that may be why grassroots campaigns have begun to play such a large part in the global climate movement.

Much has been done through teen activist Greta Thunberg’s international campaign to raise awareness of the climate crisis. Thunberg recently visited the U.S. on her roundabout way to a relocated COP 25. The young Swede has become the literal figurehead of an international movement, but continues to draw expressions of venom and hate, particularly from middle-aged men.

But not all middle-aged men. On Nov. 7, former U.S. presidential candidate Jay Inslee tweeted, “I’m a Boomer and it’s time for our generation to do our part to defeat climate change. Ok, Boomers? (Did I do that right?)”

Yes, Jay, you did it right.

A study from N.C. State University recently found that climate education for children tends to rub off on parents, too. All the more remarkable was the fact that the change of opinion documented in the study was most pronounced in politically conservative male parents.

“There’s a robust body of work showing that kids can influence their parents’ behavior and positions on environmental and social issues, but this is the first experimental study demonstrating that climate education for children promotes parental concern about climate change,” said Danielle Lawson, lead author of the study.

“This study tells us that we can educate children about climate change and they’re willing to learn, which is exciting because studies find that many adults are resistant to climate education, because it runs counter to their personal identities,” Lawson said. “It also highlights that children share that information with their parents, particularly if they’re given tools to facilitate communication—and that parents are willing to listen.”

Maybe the ultimate solution to the climate crisis starts with finding fathers and daughters – or sisters, or brothers, or mothers – willing to listen and learn from the people they love.

Carbon Offsets Raise Needed Money For Climate Mitigation Projects, But Using Them To Excuse Emissions Raises Serious Doubts

Carbon credits, or offsets, have become such a familiar feature of the climate change response landscape that they’ve even earned a euphemism, “nature-based solutions.” The desire to speak of “solutions” rather than the unfashionable “offsets” betrays some of the controversy and criticism surrounding the practice. Indeed, the carbon credit concept has become a staple of climate action in three big areas: corporate responsibility/marketing, institutional emissions frameworks, and personal carbon footprint conscience-easing.


Source: UNEP

In the corporate world, declaring a low carbon footprint is a common public relations strategy aimed at environmentally-minded customers, but the most common way companies are achieving “100% renewable” is through the purchase of offsets. After all, for a factory or a ski resort connected to the local power grid–running offices, large machinery, and other amenities–it would hardly be realistic to disconnect and quit drawing from the coal or natural gas plant that is yet to be retired. Companies count on consumers not thinking so critically, and pervasive advertising about their renewable power “use” may leave people with the impression, especially in the United States, that we don’t need to do more in investing in our renewable energy infrastructure than we really have. Many corporations certainly do have a climate consciousness in their leadership, and many invest in climate mitigation under theories that climate change affects their bottom line, too, but whether their particular credit scheme offers a true one-to-one tradeoff within the greenhouse effect warrants greater scrutiny.

In institutions like state and local governments–and even national governments and bodies of the UN–carbon credits are similarly an integral means of achieving “net zero” emissions targets on optimistic timelines. In this context and in the regulatory sphere, it is important to distinguish between carbon credits in an offset scheme and carbon credits in an industry regulated by a cap-and-trade scheme. For specific industries, like power plants, carbon dioxide emissions can be relatively easily quantified, and a reduction in emissions at one plant can be accurately equated to an identical increase in another. Carbon credits as offsets, however, are often much less certain, as in when a municipality plants trees in another part of the world in the hopes of compensating for its net transportation emissions month-to-month.

And personal carbon credit purchases also entered into vogue in the past decade or so. A guilt-ridden google search will lead fossil-fuel hungry folks to a smorgasbord of offerings from different marketers. Some more critical research can also lead one to a variety of outlets cautioning that these products may not be what they seem. The only truly sure-fire way to make up for a transatlantic flight’s worth of fuel would be for the couple-hundred passengers to buy up the seats but keep the plane on the ground.

With all the popularity of these conservation-oriented and ostensibly emissions-cutting models, there are reasons to be skeptical. This summer, for example, the UN Environment Programme noted the need for stronger real emissions reduction commitments and stressed that offsets are not a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” When it comes to substantially mitigating climate change, there is no substitute for actually cutting our own emissions, physically, today. The following five criticisms provide a decent summary of the caution with which we should consider claims about the benefits of carbon credit trading. The sixth and final point below, however, explains why we should do it anyway, just with a hefty dose of humility and equal or greater action at home.

(1) Nature can’t keep up. Anthropogenic fossil fuel emissions are simply entering the atmosphere at a much faster rate than natural carbon sinks can store them in the biosphere (and eventually lithosphere). As the UNEP notes, some 50 percent of the greenhouse gases we’ve sent into the atmosphere in our industrial history have arrived there only since 1990. And even with nature’s carbon sequestration mechanisms operating at full speed, our emissions still need to be cut by about 45 percent by 2030 to maintain a fighting chance of staying within globally-agreed warming targets.

(2) Verification varies. Not all carbon offset programs are created equal, and the process for determining the climate effect of the credit purchased is something to consider. There is a robust ecosystem of carbon credit verification programs, but these will vary in their criteria, thoroughness, and reach. Governments like California are exploring verification systems, and intergovernmental organisms like the UNFCCC are developing rigid accounting mechanisms. In a world chock-full of offset-based claims and disparate accountability schemes, however, it’s safe to say that we probably aren’t verifiably achieving all the carbon goodness everyone claims to be.

(3) Carbon sequestration projections are uncertain. Nature’s end of the greenhouse gas mitigation bargain simply isn’t as knowable as we might like to think. Scientific research can reasonably help a person estimate how much CO2 she sends into the atmosphere when she drives her truck 4000 miles. And for many ecosystems, science has a decent grasp of understanding how they grow and the rate at which biomass removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But combining these two ideas compounds the uncertainty. The point of the offset purchase in the first instance is that there is no doubt that the truck is going to be driven 4000 miles. It’s already on the road, and those greenhouse gas molecules are as good as in the sky. Equivalent molecules being taken up by the driver’s offset program of choice, however, hinges on ecological systems far less straightforward than gasoline combustion. Assumptions must be made about precipitation patterns acting predictably, natural disasters staying at bay, growth occurring exactly as present science says it might, nutrients not becoming limiting, and a range of other factors. Add to this the lengthened timescale at which a natural system sequesters carbon relative to a truck belching it out, and it seems like certain emissions today are being traded for merely probable removal tomorrow.

(4) It’s tough to say what counts. Whether an offset program is used to finance renewable energy developments elsewhere, plant trees, or simply stop an area of forest from being cut down, a looming question is to what extent the offset program funds were the device that truly secured the alleged carbon dioxide reductions. How do we police the claiming of credits for other people’s conservation efforts that might have gone forward even in the absence of the additional funding? Another concern is that many carbon offsets are purchased for the prevention of deforestation; these has an extortionist element: “I was going to turn a blind eye to Chevron trampling an acre of the Amazon, but now that I haven’t, you must tolerate my factory doing equivalent climatic harm.”




Cascades of Climate Change: A Call For Action

Climate change. Who cares? Well, you should. Climate change is not some far off phenomenon where only people generations from now will experience its devastating effects. Climate Change Is Now. There is only one mother Earth, and we only get one shot to live here.

Whether you are a resident of a coastal state like Maryland or a land locked state like Vermont, you will see the effects of climate change. Climate change does not only mean that the planet will get a little warmer. (I currently live in Vermont, and I wouldn’t mind it being a few degrees warmer in the winter). But this is a misconception of what climate change truly is.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) there is a difference between climate change and global warming. Weather refers to atmospheric conditions that happen in a particular location during short periods of time, while climate refers to average temperature, rainfall patterns and humidity of regional and global areas over a period  of years or decades. Global warming is “the long-term heating of Earth’s climate system observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900) due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in the Earth’s atmosphere.” Climate change is long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates.

Climate change, whether you are a skeptic or not, is here. It has been affecting the U.S. for quite a while. Coastal communities are assessing their vulnerabilities and risks and have been planning accordingly to implement climate change resilience plans. Despite lack of support for The Paris Agreement at the federal level, states are making progress towards reducing emissions, and may, cumulatively, be able to overcome inertia at the federal level.  The US. Climate Alliance is one of many sub-nationals, which are entities that operate below national government. These actors show that there is a possibility to close the emissions gap without the work of national actors. For example cities, “consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions.”

The U.S. Climate Alliance is a bipartisan coalition consisting of 24  governors who have pledged to reduce greenhouse emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. This state-led entity focuses on cooperation among the states to expedite necessary climate solutions that help each other reach their climate goals.

The Alliance encompasses 55 percent of the U.S. population. It has the third largest economy in the world—ranking under China and the United States—with an $11.7 trillion economy. The members’ policies surrounding climate and clean energy have drawn in billions in investments and has generated more that 1.7 million jobs in the clean energy sector. This number is over half of the total  number of jobs within the clean energy sector in the United States. The U.S. Climate Alliance has illustrated that climate leadership will not destroy economic growth.

This is a wake-up call for Americans. Climate change should not be a politically polarized issue. Republican and Democratic governors alike have shown through the creation of this alliance that climate change should bring us together instead of dividing us.

There is only one planet Earth, and this alliance has taken the initiative to keep the United States on track with its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

The current members of the U.S. Climate Alliance are: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

If you do not see your state listed and want it to  join the U.S. Climate Alliance, please press your local representative to take action.