Kyoto Credits: Stratospheric Unintended Consequences

by Marlo Lewis on August 9, 2012

in Features

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For years, I’ve seen stories about Asian and South American companies that reap windfalls under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). By inexpensively destroying a waste gas (HFC-23) with a high global warming potential (11,700 times that of carbon dioxide), the developing country companies receive boatloads of CDM credits they can then sell for big bucks to European and Japanese firms, who can use the credits to meet their Kyoto obligations in lieu of reducing their CO2 emissions.

Today, the New York Times provides an in-depth analysis of the unintended consequences, which include not only money-for-nothing wealth transfers totaling billions of dollars, but also increased production of a gas that depletes the stratospheric ozone layer. From the Times article:  

Greenhouse gases were rated based on their power to warm the atmosphere. The more dangerous the gas, the more that manufacturers in developing nations would be compensated as they reduced their emissions.

But where the United Nations envisioned environmental reform, some manufacturers of gases used in air-conditioning and refrigeration saw a lucrative business opportunity.

They quickly figured out that they could earn one carbon credit by eliminating one ton of carbon dioxide, but could earn more than 11,000 credits by simply destroying a ton of an obscure waste gas normally released in the manufacturing of a widely used coolant gas. That is because that byproduct has a huge global warming effect. The credits could be sold on international markets, earning tens of millions of dollars a year.

That incentive has driven plants in the developing world not only to increase production of the coolant gas but also to keep it high — a huge problem because the coolant itself contributes to global warming and depletes the ozone layer. That coolant gas is being phased out under a global treaty, but the effort has been a struggle.

So since 2005 the 19 plants receiving the waste gas payments have profited handsomely from an unlikely business: churning out more harmful coolant gas so they can be paid to destroy its waste byproduct. The high output keeps the prices of the coolant gas irresistibly low, discouraging air-conditioning companies from switching to less-damaging alternative gases. That means, critics say, that United Nations subsidies intended to improve the environment are instead creating their own damage.

The United Nations and the European Union, through new rules and an outright ban, are trying to undo this unintended bonanza. But the lucrative incentive has become so entrenched that efforts to roll it back are proving tricky, even risky.

* * *

Even if all proposals to make the carbon trade far less valuable succeeded, the 19 factories certified to generate carbon credits by destroying the waste gas could earn $1 billion from that business over the next eight years, according to projections by IDEAcarbon.

And even as the economics shift, one big environmental question remains: Without some form of inducement, will companies like Gujarat Fluorochemicals continue to destroy the waste gas HFC-23? Already, a small number of coolant factories in China that did not qualify for the United Nations carbon credits freely vent this dangerous chemical. And atmospheric levels are rapidly rising.


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