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The Economist Debates: Carbon Offsets

Publication Date: 
December 16, 2008
The Economist
Emma Duncan

The Economist declared Assistant Professor Michael Wara winner of the online debate on Carbon Offsets. Representing the other side was Henry Derwent, President and CEO, International Emissions Trading Association. The Economist announced:

It is no great surprise that the proposition was carried. From the beginning of this debate, the voting pointed in that direction, and it was clear from the comments that a majority of the audience shared Michael Wara’s concerns with both the principle and the practice of offsetting. The opposition put up a strong fight, and the gap between the sides has shrunk somewhat during the course of the debate, but it never looked like winning.

Reading the speeches, the guest statements and the comments, I reckon that three points counted strongly against offsets. The first was additionality. Many people struggled with the notion that it is possible to build a system on the basis of an unknown counter-factual: what would have happened without a market for offsets. Henry Derwent, for the opposition, pointed out that offsets have this in common with all sorts of government schemes—anything involving handing out grants, for instance—but that did not satisfy everybody.


The politicians and officials at the centre of the climate-change negotiations need to take these concerns into account. As everybody expected, Poznan has come and gone, leaving barely a ripple behind it. Now preparation starts for the conference that actually matters, in Copenhagen in December 2009. The question of how to get emerging countries involved in cutting emissions, and how to transfer funds to them to encourage them to do so, will be central to replacing the Kyoto Protocol. Our debate has demonstrated that a specialised and well-informed audience is deeply sceptical about the ability of the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to achieve those two aims effectively. The people running this process therefore need urgently to do one of three things: to convince people that the CDM works, to improve it or to replace it.