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Iron to Plankton To Carbon Credits

Cardinal Paul Poupard accepts a carbon-credit donation from Planktos chief executive Russ George, whose firm hopes to make the Vatican the first carbon-neutral sovereign state.
Cardinal Paul Poupard accepts a carbon-credit donation from Planktos chief executive Russ George, whose firm hopes to make the Vatican the first carbon-neutral sovereign state. (Business Wire)

"Actually knowing how much carbon stays down there is a really hard thing," says Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

Schrag said the Planktos project could also generate new algae, which could reduce the amount of oxygen at depths that would endanger other ocean life. "Doing a large-scale ecological experiment before you understand the system is a dangerous thing," he said.

Others doubt the benefits. "I think iron fertilization in the ocean is not going to make a significant difference to the CO2" problem, said Wally Broecker, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University.

There are other issues. The area is in international waters, so some critics ask why Planktos or any company should be able to reap profits there. And if the company started selling large amounts of ocean-based carbon credits, it could flood the market, reducing incentives for more reliable and measurable projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

In addition, the benefits of reforestation projects are almost as hard to measure as ocean plankton, and people at funds that trade carbon credits are raising questions about Planktos's Hungarian forest project. Although the project is in Europe, it remains unclear whether any forest projects will meet the strict standards for credits that can be sold in the European Union's cap-and-trade system, where credits currently sell for $26.85 per ton of carbon dioxide.

So how is Planktos going to offset the Vatican's emissions? The Vatican doesn't emit much -- about as much as 500 U.S. households, says David Kubiak of Planktos. To offset the Vatican's current emissions, Planktos is using credits that it expects to receive from its Hungarian tree-planting venture -- in the future. Those new seedlings won't produce carbon benefits for eight years, Kubiak said.

The Vatican isn't part of the E.U. cap-and-trade system, so Planktos can use the credits even if they do not meet E.U. standards. These are called voluntary credits because the buyers, like those in the United States, are not required to offset emissions. The voluntary credits trade at a fraction of the price that E.U.-certified credits do.

Many companies are calling for Congress to set standards for voluntary credits if it does not establish a U.S. version of Europe's more rigorous cap-and-trade rules.

"The global market for voluntary carbon offsets is currently unregulated," said Derik Broekhoff, senior associate at the World Resources Institute, "which has led to growing concerns about whether buyers are really getting what they are paying for."


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