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Agriculture Offsets -- a Savior or a Boondoggle?

Publication Date: 
June 12, 2009
New York Times
Christa Marshall and ClimateWire

Professor Michael Wara is quoted in an article in the New York Times about whether global warming legislation currently under consideration addresses the use of agricultural offsets to help the U.S. meet greenhouse gas reduction levels:

Yet some analysts fear that the Waxman-Markey bill risks failure because of unknowns about things like how much carbon really rests in a given farm plot or in an animal burp. Droughts, flood and temperature can further muddy attempts to verify the level of carbon being sequestered in agriculture, they say.

The risks are heightened because sponsors of the bill are counting on projects to work overseas, where the price for offsets is cheaper, but monitoring them is doubly difficult, according to the analysts.

"I'm worried that these offsets will bust the cap," said Michael Wara, a law professor at Stanford University who has studied offsets. He said that only 15 percent of offsets globally would need to be bogus for the environmental integrity of the Waxman-Markey bill to fail. That is because the bill relies heavily on offsets in the early years of implementation, with as much as 43 percent of emission reductions likely coming from them, he said.

The hitch is that the bill puts most of the U.S. economy under direct regulation, so the main sector left for businesses to find offsets is in forests and farms, according to Wara and others. The bulk of those offset reductions would have to come from projects at scale -- like mass reforestation on acres of grassland -- that often are the most difficult to monitor, they say.


Wara added that much U.S. ranchland is leased, which makes it tough to keep verify how long an offset project has been in place. Many projects based on plant sequestration are subject to reversal, as well, meaning that they lose their carbon-storing benefits if they become subject to a fire or other natural disaster.