The Jenny Craig Problem and the Theory of Carbon Offsets

February 24, 2020 |

Decarbonization is all the rage again – you can almost set your watch by the response of corporates to climate protests. There’s been a rash of announcements that ‘we’re doing something’, and lately the trend has been to announce a plan to be net zero carbon by 2030, 2040, 2050, take your pick.

Almost invariably, corporate plans for ‘net carbon zero’ follow the old formula:

BAT – BAS – ODF = 0

Where BAT is the emissions from business as usual today, BAS represents the savings available for business as usual in 2050 when we have more efficient machines and processes, and ODF represents carbon offsets purchased in the distant future to cover the difference.

The corporate calculation works more or less like this, in our view:

CNDA > ODF

Where CNDA equals the disruptive cost to business today from not communicating to customers that ‘we’re doing something’. The future cost of offsets by some future management team many years from now, it’s anyone’s guess and someone else’s problem. The calculation is based, we understand, more or less on this supposition:

$ODF –> $0.00

That is to say, the future cost of offsets will approach zero because there will be so many tons of carbon reduced by the switching of electricity to renewable sources such as solar, wind and biogas. Because the power sector is massively larger than the corporate sector when it comes to emissions (today), there’s a belief that the offsets available to corporates will be very affordable because the world will be awash in them.

As the climate activist Greta Thunberg has pointed out, there’s a mathematical sleight of hand involved in it. Even though solar and wind to use an example, have smaller carbon footprints than, say, burning petroleum as a heating oil, they aren’t carbon zero. So organizations that choose this path towards “net carbon zero’ will not be zero carbon themselves, nor will the offsets represent zero carbon technologies.

It is a form of 1+1 = 0. Instead of what most people would intuitively think when they hear that an organization is aiming for net zero carbon, which is a supposition of:

BAT – BAS – TFT = 0

Where TFT represents investments in carbon negative technologies that will directly offset the corporate footprint, actually reduce it to zero, and even begin the massive cleanup of all the accumulated skyfill in a program of carbon removal. Which is what the world needs and is unlikely to get, if we continue to accept “net zero carbon’ pledges at face value.

You could call it the Jenny Craig Problem, because the rationale sort of looks like this:

I would like to lose 5 pounds, but have found it difficult to shed weight. Meanwhile, my neighbor lost 5 pounds of water weight but didn’t really need to lose any. So, I bought 5 pounds of offsets from my neighbor, and now I have net zero weight gain since college.

But is that really losing weight. Is one actually thinner? And, if the neighbor were to put those pounds back on, do we have to give back the offsets? Or, do we simply repeat the cycle and generate more and more offsets without actually anyone, in the end, losing any weight?

The Direct Action Path

Direct action is the hard path to net carbon zero. Instead of doing not very much reducing beyond what is easy, and buying credits to cover the rest via a carbon market based in shaky math, this path looks more like the one we mentioned above:

BAT – BAS – TFT = 0

T represents a set of transformative technologies, and because even popular technologies like solar and wind have some carbon, the real prize in these equations will be the carbon negative technologies. Here’s why:

A tiny bit of carbon (from solar, wind etc.) > 0

The more you use wind or solar instead of a fossil fuel, the closer you get to zero, but you never quite reach it, do you? You could use half as much tomorrow, half again the next day, half again the next day, but in carbon zero goal setting there is a finite timeline (such as 2050) with an infinite number of steps required to get there (such as a 30 percent reduction).

The solution is to have a carbon negative technology — that is, a process that removes more carbon than it expends.

In that line, there are two possible pathways. You can capture carbon and store it, or you can capture carbon and expend it but expend less than you captured. The former is more efficient with carbon, the latter is more efficient with money, because in the case of capturing and expending carbon we have a process, and a process can create value, where a storehouse of greenhouse gas emissions has negative value.

Why does captured carbon have negative value? Well, there is the cost of capturing, and the cost of storage, but there is no value in holding on to it except the value in not expending it. It’s not like storing dollars in a bank.

On the other hand, capturing carbon and using it for a process, but expending less of it in the process than was captured — for example, feeding skyfill CO2 to algae and making a plastic from it. That’s carbon negative.

We can get a little bit crazy with some of the ideas of carbon negative technologies, so we have to be careful.

For example, I capture dairy waste in the form of methane, I expend that methane through combustion to make CO2. CO2 has less greenhouse gas power than methane, by a factor of six. So, presto, by capturing methane and combusting it into CO2 I am reducing carbon emissions, right?

According to some, right. According to others, we are taking a natural process, the conversion of methane into other chemicals via natural processes, speeding it up, industrializing it, and calling it a carbon reduction.

The true test

Ultimately, there’s one true test and it applies to direct action and it applies to offsets. Did my actions actually cause a change that reduced carbon? If I ordered a “solar energy” service from my utility, it may not be that the actual electrons produced on the actual; solar panel somewhere in Arizona actually made it to my home. And there’s a good reason for this. Electrons you may think travel at the speed of light but they actually travel at a speed slower than snails.

I’m not kidding, you could look it up.

It would take years for a packet of electrons to make it from Arizona to Massachusetts, renewable or not. So we use this remote system of crediting my account for electrons that you actually may have received, because I caused them to be made and delivered. Whether they show up in your toaster, or Jane’s Tesla, or Sam’s television, really doesn’t matter all that much, so long as we track the claims accurately and never double count.

The same goes for fuels. If my order causes the fuel to be made and delivered, does it matter whether a drop-in alternative shows up, all of it, in my tank, or some in Jane’s or some in Sam’s. My order caused the fuel to be created and delivered, and I can book that carbon attribute as my own, and that’s right and proper.

The true test is in the direct causative action. Should I be able to sell those attributes in the marketplace, if I were not to need them? I have no problem with that, but not for compliance purposes.

For the same reason that one cannot purchase an offset of good behavior in order to continue one’s life as a thief. Offsetting is fine when it comes to delivering the attribute — if I paid for it, I can give it to you, and claim the compliance as my own. But not the other way around, I can’t have you cause the action to be taken, then buy the attribute from you and claim the compliance as my own. There are many limits in the world of carbon limits, yet we have forgotten that one and need to get back to it, pronto.

Else we risk the construction of Potemkin Villages of Carbon. Construct it deliberately with as much carbon as possible, then reduce the carbon, claim the credit and sell it in the marketplace to generate money. That’s no way to build the world, that’s corrupt and wrong.

Compliance means compliance, and weight loss means weight loss, your loss can’t be used in place of mine, just ask your doctor. Or ask Jenny Craig.

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