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UN defends carbon-trading scheme from US criticism

The UN's top climate official defended a global trading scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after the US government released a report questioning its efficacy.

By Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor / December 5, 2008

Smokestacks billow clouds of smoke at a heat-engine plant in Poznan, central Poland, where world leaders are gathering for UN climate talks, which run through December 12.

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The UN's top climate official defended a global trading scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after the US government released a report questioning its efficacy.

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The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, published a report Tuesday analyzing the UN's Clean Development Mechanisms, arrangements under the Kyoto Protocol that allow rich countries to meet their commitments to cut greenhouse gases by investing in projects – such as a wind farm or a reforestation program – that reduce emissions in poorer countries.

The GAO found that the cap-and-trade scheme successfully created a working carbon market, "but its effects on emissions, the European economy, and technology investment are less certain." The report noted that the use of carbon offsets can "undermine the system's integrity" because there is no way to ensure that the projects invested in would not have been built anyway, or that they will last long enough to reduce the amount of emissions that they are expected to reduce. Carbon offsets, the report concluded "involve fundamental tradeoffs and may not be a reliable long-term approach to climate change mitigation."

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said that, while the program can certainly be improved, the fundamentals of the system were sound. Mr. de Boer, who is attending the UN climate summit in Poznań, Poland,

"It's not as though we're printing money in the garage," de Boer told Reuters, adding that there are mechanisms in place to verify the emissions cuts. "There is room for improvement and there are projects that perhaps make it through that shouldn't have...we are in a learning experience."

A complex system

The GAO is not alone in saying that cap-and-trade systems are an invitation to abuse. The Times, a British daily, ran a story this week describing the system as "the greatest and most complex commodity trading market the world has ever seen." It quotes leading US climate scientist James Hansen, who calls the approach "terrible":

“Carbon trading does not solve the emission problem at all,” he says. “In fact it gives industries a way to avoid reducing their emissions. The rules are too complex and it creates an entirely new class of lobbyists and fat cats.”

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