California’s Carbon Offset Program Could Increase Pollution

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An article on the MIT Technology Review took a look at the findings of a new working paper by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford and other institutions. And the news isn’t good. There’s a very real possibility that the Cap-and-Trade part of California’s Climate Plan could inadvertently cause increased emissions.

  • Although California’s Climate Plan is supposed to reduce emissions, it could actually make pollution worse.
  • California’s revised Air Resources Board protocol unknowingly provides incentives for polluters to make decisions that will further harm the environment.
  • With the dire state of the environment, it’s imperative that programs designed to reduce pollution actually function as advertised.
  • Since legislators have access to experts that can spot possible problems with the carbon offset concept, they should consult them before implementing any programs.

Carbon offsets look good in theory

Cap-and-Trade was developed as a way to control carbon emissions. Here’s how it works: a business or organization is given a limit for the amount of pollution it can produce. If that entity comes in under the limit, it can sell what’s called  a “carbon credit” to others that have gone over their limit. A carbon credit gives the right to emit one ton of greenhouse gases.

In theory, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) carbon offset program is supposed to reduce the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere. An examination of the reality reveals some startling loopholes. The problem comes down to a dysfunctional protocol and unwittingly incentivizing actions that increase pollution.

The MIT Technology Review gives the examples from the paper of what could result in the coal mining and rice farming industries. As miners dig up coal, the process releases methane, which is a nefarious greenhouse gas much worse than carbon dioxide. In fact, it’s 84 times worse than carbon dioxide for the first 20 years after release. Additionally, even after a mine has shuttered, methane can leak out for years afterwards.

Coal miner in mine.
The process of coal mining itself releases methane, a greenhouse gas. (Photo: Getty Images)

Beating the system

Now, there are a few ways a coal mining company can more responsibly get rid of the methane, rather than just releasing it into the air. Instead, it can capture the gas for use as energy in a pipeline; oxidize it in a ventilation system; or use flaring to burn it — all of which are supposed to be better for the environment and earn the company carbon credits to sell.

But, the researchers point out that California’s methane protocol could result in incorrect emissions tallies, through crediting reductions that would’ve happened anyway or overestimating the baseline pollution of a project. Most unsettling, the carbon offsets program could give the coal mining industry a shot in the arm by selling credits, boosting profits by as much as 17% if calculated at current prices, and keeping the mines alive and functioning longer.

Rice cultivation is also a culprit in the release of methane gas. In the California protocol, rice farmers who take steps to reduce methane gas release gain credits. That’s great if a farmer is already growing rice. But what if she is growing corn, which emits much less methane than rice? Now that she knows she can earn credits for growing rice, she might decide to switch her crop to rice instead.

Ironically, CARB’s current protocol was designed to address issues with the previous system. Rather than assessing individual projects, CARB took a broader approach by setting carbon offsets standards and requirements in project categories such as forestry, livestock, rice cultivation and coal mining. Obviously, this new system isn’t working effectively enough either.

Rice in the farmer's hand.
Even rice cultivation releases methane. (Photo: Getty Images)


The environment is in a state of crisis. We can’t afford to put in ineffective programs that could make the situation worse. Before implementing a program, legislators must educate themselves and understand the implications of their policies. There are plenty of qualified experts available to help. Perhaps before making any adjustments to the plan, California’s ARB should consult researchers first and avoid other gross miscalculations. Thankfully, this study brought to light the holes in the current system so they can be addressed.

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