Adam Millard-Ball, Ph.D. Candidate, Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Stanford University
The initial promise of carbon offset programs as a new funding incentive for emission-reduction projects in the developing world has failed to materialize in the transportation sector. Transportation accounts for less than 0.5% of projects under the largest offset program to date, the UN-administered Clean Development Mechanism. Based on archival analysis and interviews with UN decision makers and project developers, I show how the complexities of quantifying emission reductions from transportation provides a partial explanation for this under representation. However, many of these complexities, particularly second-order effects through market responses, have been glossed over in other sectors such as renewable energy. Thus, the case of transportation sheds lights on fundamental problems with quantifying carbon offsets. I also present simulation results showing how scaling up to sector-wide offset programs may scale up the uncertainties, and lead to the generation of large volumes of spurious (non-additional) emission reductions. Grant programs may lack the conceptual elegance of carbon trading, but may be a more robust way to bring about transportation emission reductions in the developing world.