Is This How Carbon Credits Work?

Leon County, Florida, where I live, is selling carbon credits for methane gas it is burning from the county landfill, going part-way into turning our garbage into cash.  Here’s the story (facts come from the local paper, the Tallahassee Democrat, October 19, page 3A).

Because of complaints of nearby residents of odors coming from the landfill, the county has installed a system of underground pipes to collect methane gas, which is then routed to a flare and burned off.  It appears that because the county is destroying the methane it can claim carbon credits, which can then be sold, which has the potential to raise about $50,000 a year or so for the county.

First off, I will confess to not understanding the science here, because when methane burns it produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.  So, as an economist with not much of a science background, I don’t understand how turning methane into carbon dioxide reduces greenhouse gasses or helps the environment.

The science is not really relevant here, however, because the reason the methane is being burned is to reduce odors from the landfill.  The purchase of these carbon credits will have zero effect on emissions of any kind, because the methane would be burned regardless of whether the county could sell carbon credits for its activity.

In this case anyway, the idea that someone can buy these carbon credits and then claim to be helping the environment is a complete sham.  There will be no environmental impact of any kind on the part of the seller.  If there is any environmental impact at all, it will be that the buyer, having purchased the credits, will emit more greenhouse gasses than had the credit not been available.  The sale cannot reduce the emissions of greenhouse gasses, but could increase them.

Is this kind of sham transaction where the campaign against global warming has led us?

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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