A New Kind of Toxic Asset

A new kind of toxic asset is coming from a surpassing place: a carbon credit exchange set up by the United Nations:

When the United Nations wanted to help slow climate change, it established what seemed a sensible system.

Greenhouse gases were rated based on their power to warm the atmosphere. The more dangerous the gas, the more that manufacturers in developing nations would be compensated as they reduced their emissions.

But where the United Nations envisioned environmental reform, some manufacturers of gases used in air-conditioning and refrigeration saw a lucrative business opportunity.

They quickly figured out that they could earn one carbon credit by eliminating one ton of carbon dioxide, but could earn more than 11,000 credits by simply destroying a ton of an obscure waste gas normally released in the manufacturing of a widely used coolant gas. That is because that byproduct has a huge global warming effect. The credits could be sold on international markets, earning tens of millions of dollars a year.

So since 2005 the 19 plants receiving the waste gas payments have profited handsomely from an unlikely business: churning out more harmful coolant gas so they can be paid to destroy its waste byproduct. The high output keeps the prices of the coolant gas irresistibly low, discouraging air-conditioning companies from switching to less-damaging alternative gases. That means, critics say, that United Nations subsidies intended to improve the environment are instead creating their own damage.

Since the United Nations program began, 46 percent of all credits have been awarded to the 19 coolant factories, in Argentina, China, India, Mexico and South Korea…Each plant has probably earned, on average, $20 million to $40 million a year from simply destroying waste gas, says David Hanrahan, the technical director of IDEAcarbon, a leading carbon market consulting firm. He says the income is “largely pure profit.”

Disgusted with the payments, the European Union has announced that as of next year it will no longer accept the so-called waste gas credits from companies in its carbon trading system — by far the largest in the world — essentially declaring them counterfeit currency.

Regulatin’ ain’t easy. People — and firms are owned and operated by people — respond to incentives. Money is always one of them, not because of greed, but because of deep and complex social development, which I’ve written about before. Money is always hanging around, providing an incentive to circumvent regulation in increasingly clever ways the more sophisticated the regulation becomes.

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