Wow! But ...

Miserando atque Eligendo

Sort of: ‘I may be lowly, and yet I’m the guy who got chosen.’  The current pope’s motto reflects a predisposition to bring things down to earth; he doesn’t entertain the idea of privilege for status. In his view, the powerful are there to serve, not dominate or exploit. How right! How rare. You just know that this will evoke smirking dismissal in boardrooms and cabinet rooms all over the planet. For a good example of completely inappropriate condescension see this article from a conservative Canadian think tank. But who has the world’s attention right now? Pope Francis lives humbly and dedicates himself to service and he, not prime ministers and CEOs, is the one who captures our imagination. Does this upset of status and power inspire? Well, not much else seems to inspire. And doesn’t the willingness to devote oneself to real service (as opposed to politically conditioned cynical poses of service) grant a certain degree of credibility? Here is a big deal person who takes no personal advantage and devotes himself to serving the disadvantaged; does such a person lie? Hard to see Francis as a liar.

But other things can take away from credibility. Is he ignorant? Stupid? Gullible? Naïve? Francis has spent a life up to his eyeballs in hard choices and realpolitik, so he is not any of those things. And popular commentary that reflects the view that a good person must be mentally deficient in some way says a lot more about the commenters than Francis. Still, at the level of narrower considerations, it’s possible that he does get some things wrong.

Anyone who cares about the environment and social justice and how those two things come together under the rubric of ‘sustainability’ has to be thrilled with Francis’ recent Encyclical, Laudato Si’. It says everything that people of good conscience and concern would want to say. It says that the environment is a collective asset that we all need to support and protect together. It says that we have to listen to the science, understand it, and accept it. It says that the global economy is not working in a way that addresses the needs of everyone, or the needs of the rest of the natural world and the environment. It says that part of the problem is that belief and economic theory places people outside of the natural world instead of as part of it.

I support all of that completely. I feel exactly the same way about these things. And it is heartening, after years of having so-called ‘evangelicals’ shout that ‘God’s World’ is entirely in God’s hands and that humanity is incapable of changing the world in any substantial way, and that to believe otherwise is presumptuous and hubristic, and that God wants man to exploit the world in whatever way he can … finally, someone with some real religious cred says ‘Nonsense!’ I love it.

But it’s possible that Pope Francis makes two errors right now: one would be an error in policy reasoning and the other, an error of judgment. Relative to the real importance and benefit of  Laudato Si’, they are minor. But they are worth addressing.

The first error (the other will be discussed in another post) is the dismissal of carbon markets. Carbon markets, and the schemes that feed credits into those markets have a very sad record of actually precipitating emissions reduction. Furthermore, many of the schemes actually do a lot of harm. Many agree and some academic writers want to capitalize on Francis’ profile and talk about how right he is in the context of their own work. A recent article appearing in The Conversation’ is a case in point: ‘Even the Pope Gets it - Carbon Markets Won’t Fix the Climate’. (As an aside—and reflecting back on the point about people considering Francis less than an intellectual—how come they use the phrase “Even the Pope gets it”? I digress.) The error here—startling in an academic treatment—is to generalize and suggest a whole perspective on the basis of one case study.

Our discussion about climate and carbon markets should not be about the failures or wonderful successes of individual projects, it should be about the validity of the idea. The idea (in case anyone missed the North American success in eliminating acid rain through the creation of an SO2 cap and trade scheme) is quite valid. It is logically and demonstrably valid. But, in its application to the carbon emissions challenge, it has done poorly. The answer is not to dismiss the idea but to understand how it has both succeeded and failed. I agree with Pope Francis that some carbon reduction schemes, and therefor the markets that clear the supposed value that they create, are not working. That has to change. But the needed change is not the elimination of carbon markets but rather the application of rigorous standards to the schemes themselves. This is something that is eminently feasible and should be undertaken. The EU, for example, as host of a potentially huge commerce in emissions reductions credits is well placed to enforce such a standard.

The ‘Even the Pope Gets it’ article does not make a good case for dismissing carbon markets. Neither does Francis. In fact the case study that the article discusses really serves to show how easy it would have been to screen such a bad scheme out.

Many industries and companies absolutely will need the option to buy emissions credits in order to stay in business. But that’s not the end of the story. They will need carbon markets in order to foster the development of new sources of energy and materials that don’t create emissions. Air transportation is one such industry. As mentioned in previous posts, commercial air carriers have set the interim goal of having no increase in emissions after 2020; air traffic is forecast to rise but emissions will stay at the 2020 level. Then emissions will drop; by 2050, air travel is planned to be at half the total absolute amount of emissions that it generated in 2010. These goals cannot be achieved without using market-based measures; airlines have to be able to buy carbon credits from 2020 in order to keep emissions flat because the technologies that allow for zero carbon aviation fuel are just barely getting started. There won’t be an adequate supply of such fuel in 2020. Additionally, carbon credits may prove critical in assisting the development of the alternative, sustainable fuel that actually is the solution.

The problem is not carbon markets; they’re going to be vital. The problem is ensuring that every project that positions itself to sell emissions credits must be absolutely credible and useful.

To meet that standard is to meet a true standard of sustainability. Projects must result in real reductions in total greenhouse gas and they must comprehensively address all other environmental considerations, both global and local and, just as importantly, they must be fair to local populations and provide what local individuals see as advantage on the basis of free, prior, informed consent. These qualifications, of both environment and social justice, are ignored routinely. That is what gives rise to the frustration that we all feel. But having valid sustainability certification criteria and processes addresses that.

We should not be led astray in that regard. Virtually all carbon capture or carbon reduction schemes are certified. The problem is that many sustainability certification arrangements are farcical. They are institutional lies, established to allow greedy people to exploit good people and the world’s desire for climate action.

Rather than condemn carbon markets that will prove essential, we should advocate for something, and that something is a real, honest, credible sustainability certification mechanism.

Should we be oblivious, consumerist ingrates who are ignorant of effects of what we do when we buy and sell things? No. But we do need to provide those goods and services that those in the developing world want and need. We just have to do it in a way that is certain to be environmentally and socially benign.