3. A non-bogus way to address climate change
Carbon Vault allows you to buy rights to pollute so you can decrease carbon emissions and stick it to the coal plants...kinda
^ rainbow + forest fires = hellish rainbow over Berkeley last week
Since the California fires have started, and my access to the outside world has become even more precarious, I’ve started thinking a lot about climate change.
Living in California is a great way for climate change to skyrocket to one’s “top 3 devastating issues I now actually care about” list. It is a gut-wrenching 1, 2 punch: it is a state where climate change directly affects your daily life (through fires, air pollution) so the problem is acute and immediate; and it’s a place of immense natural beauty, so you have a constant reminder of all that you could lose.
As always, when a global problem stares me in the face, I feel an immense duty to do something + an overwhelming sense that nothing that I actually can do, will matter. I am skeptical of low-return, feel-good solutions (volunteering, recycling), and also understand enough about policy solutions to feel my individual powerlessness in enacting any kind of meaningful institutional reform.
This week, I’m really excited for a way to bridge this gap — a solution that works on an institutional level, but can be accessed by individuals like you and me. A new organized called Climate Vault can help address climate change by actually decreasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
In order to understand Climate Vault, let me first explain one of the best tools countries use to limit their carbon emissions — cap and trade. (Outside of a carbon tax, which is our best bet to reduce emissions, as I’m told over and over again by exasperated economists ready to pull their. hair. out.)
Basics of Cap and Trade
In cap and trade, the government says that everybody in the whole economy can collectively produce a total of, say, 100 units of carbon. They enforce this cap by creating 100 permits. If you’re a business or power plant, holding a permit allows you to emit 1 unit of carbon. Year after year, the government decreases the number of permits, decreasing carbon emissions.
(Here, I imagine State of California helicopters dropping official papers onto whatever businesses are below, in cute little permit flutters)
^ How much greenhouse gas California is emitting is on the y-axis, and time is on the x-axis. The green bars show you the “cap” on the number of permits — slowly decreasing the rights to pollute in the market. I love me some climate change graphs where something bad actually goes down.
Say that I’m a little guy, and not emitting a lot of carbon, but I have a permit. I can sell it to someone who really needs the permit, because emitting carbon is crucial to their business (like a coal power plant). In this way, cap and trade is simple and “efficient”, in that the regulator doesn’t have figure out how to give the right amount of permits the right emitters -- they can just trust supply and demand forces to ensure that all the emitters will figure it out in their little sandbox.
Say that you, dear reader, bought one of these permits … aaaaaand burned it 🔥 (but without contributing to air pollution, ha ha). Now there’s 99 permits (bottles of beer on the wall, problems in Hov’s life, permits in California’s cap and trade) left. Decreasing the amount of permits directly reduces carbon emissions, because there’s fewer rights to pollute to go around. Moreover, fewer permits means the price of a single permit increases, making it more expensive for coal plants to operate (emit at their previous rate). Investors, seeing that coal plants are more expensive and maybe not such a good deal anymore, might start thinking about investing in wind farms instead. So buying permits = all sorts of things that decrease carbon.
So which strangers might you give to?
I shit you not, for two weeks after diving into cap and trade, I thought I’d be the first person to figure out a way to buy these damn permits myself. It was so exciting. The solution was so clear. By buying permits in a cap and trade system, I could be directly contributing to reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and therefore doing something real about climate change. No bullshit tree planting.
Turns out, the hero of my last newsletter, Michael Greenstone, has best me to it (he strikes again!). He just founded a nonprofit called Carbon Vault, which uses your donations to buy and retire permits from the world’s (regrettably few) cap and trade markets. In all seriousness, this is great, because I’m sure MG is doing a much better job of this than I could.
Carbon Vault’s honest carbon offsets start to work for you immediately, because we offset your carbon emitting activities through voluntary participation in the carbon markets around the world. On your behalf, we buy up and retire carbon pollution permits so that polluters can’t use them. Since these markets limit the total number of permits available, every permit we retire on your behalf means that one metric ton of pollution is prevented from happening this year.
So while we wait for better long-term solutions to climate change, your sponsorship of permit retirements means we slow down the effects of climate change today.
^ a map on Carbon Vault that shows you which markets you can buy permits from
Unfortunately, Climate Vault is just now setting up their purchasing portal, so you can’t donate just yet. Instead, you can sign up to be notified when they start accepting money for permits. While it is a bit anticlimactic, I’m personally excited to follow how this nonprofit is evolving. I will keep y’all posted about when they launch.
Related quote from this week
“I think this is actually one of the most important roles that movements have to play. A big part of our role is bringing kids back from the sense of: Nothing can be done. Movements at their finest help people realize their potential and their power to do something that they never thought was possible before.” — Varshini Prakash, founder of the Sunrise Movement
Thanks for reading, and holla if you like this climate content.
PS - Shoutout to my friend Vishan, a former researcher for Michael Greenstone, who showed me Climate Vault. Check out his paper on the value of social distancing here, and follow his career-in-the-making at MIT.
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