Can the Suits Save the World?


As anyone who follows The Nature Conservancy’s Twitter feed knows, I spent much of yesterday attending Carbon TradeEx in an event that can be best described as a carbon markets wonkfest.

So what does such a meeting look like? Well, first of all everyone (except for yours truly) wears a suit — or at least a tie — and no one (again, with one notable exception) wears something so casual as jeans. Frankly, the event look a lot like what it is — a collection of bankers, scientists, regulators, Fortune 500 executives and NGO heads meeting for the sole purpose of making greenhouse gas reductions work in the real world.

Let me start off by saying that I am be no means an expert on carbon markets and much of the discussion at Carbon TradeEx was well above my head. That said, as a layman I think there are a few general observations I can make:

  • All presenters firmly believe that emissions reductions must be done within the context of the still struggling economy — and many feel that transitioning to a green economy could create jobs. If the transition does not create significant, permanent jobs it will be considered a failure.
  • There is a strong belief that the transition to green energy will raise the price of electricity and the general public must be compensated/mentally prepared for this potentially painful change.
  • There was near universal support for a cap-and-trade system over a carbon tax and universal agreement that the Obama administration and Democratic leaders are so aligned on cap-and-trade that at this point, the debate seems moot. The more pertinent question seems to be: Will the president and Congress be able to push a cap-and-trade bill through Congress?
  • Business leaders were generally supportive of federal legislation capping emissions. As a patchwork of regional and international regulations come online, what these leaders crave are one set of federal rules they can abide by and that can inform their investments.

I’ll elaborate a bit on this last point because it’s the one I understand the most and the one that most directly relates to the Conservancy’s work. Deforestation and land-use change accounts for about 20 percent of global emissions, which as much as the entire transportation sector – it is a huge number.

The United States is key to addressing this number both domestically and abroad. First, we have a lot of land – land that is forested, holds degraded forests, or is marginal farmland. We can manage this land to sequester carbon. Second, as we apply cap-and-trade to an energy sector that relies near exclusively on fossil fuels, we will need a source of real and verifiable carbon credits that can be purchased by companies unable to bring their emissions below the cap.

Many of these credits can come from domestic forestry efforts, but we will likely need international sources as well. Including credits from countries like Brazil and Indonesia – top global greenhouse gas emitters based solely on deforestation – will support our transition to clean energy and help lower emissions from countries where deforestation is the primary driver of climate change.

The blueprint for success seems to be in place. We just need the suits to figure out how it all works.

(Photo: Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons License)

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