The deeper causes of VER chaos

If you look at the Financial Times’s coverage of voluntary offset market the last few days, you may conclude that this market is in chaos. It is a wild west, with carbon cowboys raiding the purses of Islington; the honest bloke in the street who wants to do his bit is ripped off by wideboys flogging useless EUAs; old grannies have their piggy banks ransacked by brazen cockney touts, who have nicked a caseload of unmarked North American HFC23 reductions off the back of a lorry. Online offsetters are making margins usually known only in drugs and porn.

This is a collision of two huge societal forces: conscience and greed. Conscience, because the buyers, being in mainly protestant countries and so unable to get an even cheaper deal in the confessional, make themselves feel better via Paypal. And even when they are being ripped off, it’s still a small part of the weekly shopping bill.

Greed: no barriers to entry, no rules to abide by, the sharks can swim right up to the beach, and gorge on fat juicy guilty bathers, cooked pink in the unseasonal sun.

To the extent that it is a problem that this incipient market is unruly, it is worth looking for the reason.

You can blame the guy-with-a-conscience for letting himself get screwed: caveat emittor, you may say. Eventually, the conscience guys will learn who they can trust. The trouble with this approach is that there might not be an eventually – the system gets such bad name that people give up on it.[1]

Or you look at the mess and wonder why someone did not do something about it earlier. Well, someone did not do something about it because of a fundamental lack of leadership on the issue. On the face of it, the voluntary market is messed because it is unregulated. But deeper down, it is a mess because the issue of personal responsibility for CO2 emissions has no political leadership. The sheep are scrabbling about all over the hillside, because they have no shepherd.

Chaos fills the gap left when leadership fails.

The lack of leadership is easy to explain. When it comes to making politics of the emissions caused by the private individual, the voter, it’s so softly-softly, it’s a mimosa leaf hidden in a piece of cotton wool wrapped up in gossamer. Politicians are too cowardly to make a few common sense suggestions as to what to do about climate change. They know they will get it in the neck from the energy companies and car manufacturers, the airlines or the hawkers of fast-moving consumer goods. In a Tescocracy you don’t Edwina-Curry the consumer-voter.

But lots of people are getting scared about what is happening to the sky and want to do something about it. There is no leadership from the church, none from politicians, and so of course you look to Google. From there you are a few clicks from the unscrupulous clutches of a carbon crook.

[1] For a libertarian, this might be bad news. It seems to be evidence that total freedom, the absence of any standards, actually makes a market less effective:: the buyer, unless highly educated and possessing plenty of leisure time for research and analysis, simply cannot make an informed comparison of the offerings, and therefore cannot make a rational economic choice.

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