Friday, July 6, 2007

Plankton Credits

On Marketplace last night, Alex Schmidt reported on the business of selling carbon offsets, and specifically a new facet of it: plankton. In all the time I've been ranting about individual carbon offset buyers and the fact that they're busy buying indulgences for their hummers* I haven't really put a lot of thought into the people selling credits. I do feel like there's something kind of sketchy about being paid to plant trees, which for some reason seems like it should be an altruistic act, not an act of capitalism. But on the other hand, it's nice when people doing good for the planet get paid for their effort. Now, with the US poised to possibly (finally) sign the Kyoto Accords, there's the chance that we would set up a real system where companies would have to cut their carbon emissions or pay for offsets (it's already like that in Europe) so of course there are lots of companies investigating interesting ways to cut carbon in the air.

Schmidt's story was about one company in particular that's trying to artificially induce plankton to grow in the ocean by dumping iron into it. The idea is that the plankton will act like a tree planted on land and reduce CO2 in the air. What Schmidt failed to do was ask any questions:
  1. What happens to the iron when you dump a bunch of it in the ocean? I can't imagine that that's good for the sea or the fish long-term.
  2. How long does the plankton keep sequestering the carbon? As far as I know, when a plant dies it gives carbon back off as it decays; does plankton do the same?
  3. What will be the long-term effect of lots of additional plankton in the ocean? Will there be disproportionate growth in the populations of fish that eat it? Will it prevent the ocean from the current carbon sequestration it already does? Will the plankton give off some other chemical we don't want?
  4. According to wikipedia, there are potentially a lot of positives about adding iron to oceans that need it, making them more productive and healthier, but who's to say that the companies trying to sell offsets will stick to oceans that need iron?

I love Marketplace and the economic perspective they take on stories, but it seems like for this one, Kai Ryssdal needs to take over and try again.

*There was a great tongue-in-cheek article about this in a recent issue of Time Magazine, actually, where the author suggested that we allow parents to buy credits when they want to hit their children. They'll purchase a credit which would pay off a parent who regularly hits their kid in exchange for them taking the day off. The child abuser is happy, the kid who would have gotten hit is happy, and the parent who bought the credit is happy. The credit-buying parent's kid, not so much.

3 comments:

Tim Aaronson said...

*There was a great tongue-in-cheek article about this in a recent issue of Time Magazine, actually, where the author suggested that we allow parents to buy credits when they want to hit their children. They'll purchase a credit which would pay off a parent who regularly hits their kid in exchange for them taking the day off.

Heck this is close to my idea of couples receiving two child credits when they marry. Two kids per couple. That's it. This will give the planet a rest. And they can be traded. I have adopted this notion personally and have given my niece one of my child credits to have a third. She is a great mom.

SabraGirl said...

I wonder how much an ECC (equivalent child credit) would go for? Would you trade them on the open market, or would you need to qualify for the extra ones (showing proper intelligence levels etc)?

alex said...

hey there - i'm alex, the person who reported this piece. most of your questions are good questions, but marketplace is a show about money, not environmental concerns. i did ask questions in the piece, but they were related to how (and how well) a carbon offset market might work in the US. with less than 4 minutes to work with, staying focused is imperative. if reporters had 6, 7 or 8, we'd be able to get to all the other good questions you have.

and as to your concerns about the plankton these people are growing, i'm no defender either way of what they're doing, but the fraction is absolutely negligible in the space of the ocean, and they claimed they were doing it in a part of the ocean that had already been significantly deforested. plankton is a source of food for ocean life, so ostensibly this would be a good thing. lastly, one interesting thing i didn't have time to mention in the piece is that this was the first time any scientific mission, ever, had observed the growth of plankton over its entire life cycle -- an important experiment in its own right.

PS: marketplace is technically not produced by NPR -- it's american public media.