Lisa Song, Pro Publica - California's flawed cap and trade program

Lisa Song, Pro Publica
California's flawed cap and trade program


The State of California wants to reduce its carbon footprint to slow down the effects of climate change.  Good idea.

One way it plans to do this is by removing carbon from the atmosphere by locking it up in trees. To do this, you need trees. Hence the California plan to incentivize tree-preservation, by monetizing an alternative to cutting trees down and selling the timber.

For keeping carbon-hungry trees alive, qualified forest-owners get state-issued credits which they can sell on what’s called a “cap and trade” market.

Who are the credit-buyers in this market? Businesses, including some of California’s major polluters, who need a way to paper over their real-world carbon emissions that exceed what their state permit says they are allowed. The credits they buy from forest-owners legally excuse their pollution.

What balances that out, at least theoretically, is the carbon captured by the uncut forests.

Theoreticians love to say of their critics, “They can’t see the forest for the trees.” But one critic of the California cap and trade program says, it often overvalues forests, by paying too little attention to the trees.

Or to put it simply, a report from a non-profit called CarbonPlan says, California is not getting all the carbon-capturing it is issuing credits for. Which means those excess industrial emissions are not really being fully balanced out by the forests being protected.


Lisa Song reports on the environment, energy and climate change for ProPublica. She joined ProPublica in 2017 after six years at InsideClimate News, where she covered climate science and environmental health. She was part of the reporting team that revealed Exxon’s shift from conducting global warming research to supporting climate denial, a series that was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for public service. From 2013-2014 she reported extensively on air pollution from Texas’ oil and gas boom as part of a collaboration between several newsrooms. Lisa is a co-author of “The Dilbit Disaster,” which won a Pulitzer for national reporting. She has degrees in earth science and science writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



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