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26 June 2008updated 27 Sep 2015 2:30am

How to be a carbon vigilante

Chris Adams writes on carbon trading schemes and buying one's way back into heaven.

By Chris Adams

Most of us are aware of carbon offsets now – to some they’re a godsend, to others they’re little more than a the 21st century equivalent to indulgences from the Catholic Church of the middle ages – if you had enough money, you could make up for your sins by giving money to the church, effectively buying your way back into heaven.

Less of us are aware of their big brothers, the industrial scale carbon trading schemes. Carbon trading schemes work by setting an absolute level of Carbon Dioxide that can be released in a time period, and issuing tradable permits to companies that allow them to legally emit green house gases. Companies that go over their legal limit must buy permits from cleaner companies to keep their plants running within the framework of the law. This creates an incentive for companies to invest in clean, low carbon technology, by putting a monetary value on carbon emissions – if you can sell your unneeded permits to the laggards in their field, then you’re basically being paid to clean up your act.

How much should carbon cost?

It’s an ingenious idea, but you really have to set the ceiling for emissions to be low enough for emitters to notice and feel some financial pressure, otherwise there’s just no real incentive for them to change. This is the main criticism levelled at the EU carbon trading scheme – the price of carbon permits at launch was just too low to make a difference, so it’s largely been ignored. So what you do to fix this sorry state of affairs? You hack the price of carbon, that’s what.

Sandbag.org.uk is a site set that lets ordinary people gleefully distort the carbon markets by grouping together to buy up carbon trading permits, and then take them out of the trading scheme. This increases the scarcity of the remaining permits, and by extension makes them more valuable. When carbon trading permits are more valuable, investing in clean technology becomes more attractive than the increasingly expensive option doing nothing and of pumping out CO2 into the atmosphere.

Right now Sandbag.org are putting the price of taking a tonne of carbon emissions out of the system at around the £24 mark. With most powerplants allocated an allowance of between 500,000 and 2,500,000 tonnes a year, hoovering up permits like this isn’t a cheap process; in fact it’s almost ludicrously expensive to wipe out the emissions allowance for even a single power station.

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The idea of using industry loopholes as levers to force companies to take action has a charming air of righteous anger about it, but for this to work, you really need mass participation to make a visible impact. If ever there was a site that’s crying out for a pledgebank pledge to kick off a funding drive, this would be it.

Anyone care to join me?