For the past week or so, I have wandered around the Paris treaty negotiations wearing my credential on a white "carbon neutral" lanyard. It marks me as one of the crowd who chose to offset my carbon footprint from flying here by buying a single pollution credit from a far-off green energy project.
Salving my jet-set conscience this way was as simple as buying a baguette at the local boulangerie – and it cost about as much.
Not so easy, in the closing days and nights of negotiations here, will be strengthening the carbon-trading provisions in the Paris Agreement, one of many features of the pact that remain up in the air.
As the marketplace for carbon expands, trading advocates want the treaty to help make pollution credit schemes more efficient and credible.
Success would limber up the world's carbon-cutting muscles just when we can least afford wasted opportunities and bureaucratic delays. Failure would exacerbate carbon credits' reputation as a free pass for wealthy buyers or a con game for sellers.
On Friday morning, a rumor swirled through the pavilions of Paris that a few countries hostile to market-based mechanisms were trying to torpedo key paragraphs in the draft treaty on carbon trading.
The provisions are meant to increase confidence in carbon trading by preventing abuses such as double-counting of credits. Trading won't accomplish the goal if the same reductions are scored by both one country that cut its emissions and another country that bought the credit.
Niclas Svenningsen, a United Nations official involved involved in the carbon-neutrality program selling credits at the Paris conference, assured me that the credits I would buy had been subjected to "quadruple verification."
The carbon savings I had my eye on were created several years ago by the construction and operation of a 14 megawatt wind power project in Maharashtra, India.
Why were these credits so cheap? Basically, because supply exceeds demand, a result of inefficiencies in the trading markets and mistakes in the early days of allocating credits. Europe, in particular, is cutting back on purchases of credits like this sponsored by the UN. The Indian owner has tens of thousands of credits on its hands and is unloading them at bargain-basement prices.
Carbon trading has been maturing since the days of the Kyoto Protocol, the landmark climate treaty that the Paris Agreement is meant to replace. But it's hardly a perfect mechanism, and some consider cheap credits useless for driving the world's emissions sharply down, the goal of the new treaty that's emerging here.
After all, if I can write off my own annual carbon footprint for less than $50, why should I bother to screw in new light bulbs, ride my bike to work, sign up with Solar City, set the washing machine for cold water, plant a tree, upgrade my insulation, and go vegetarian?
That way of thinking, market advocates say, will wear off as the world shifts toward universally pricing carbon (either with cap-and-trade regimes or by imposing taxes on emissions of greenhouse gases). As experience with these systems grow, carbon prices should go up. It's been happening, slowly, in the European Union, California and the northeastern United States. China's system will be the next big one to come on line.
Once the credits reflect more closely the cost of green power investments and the costs to society of carbon pollution, people ought to do whatever makes the most economic sense – cutting their own use of fossil fuels, or buying credits from others who can make cuts less expensively.
That's the theory. For me, the exercise was more a thought experiment than a real attempt to shrink my own carbon footprint. If I really want to make a difference, a better way might be to buy renewable energy credits from my local electric utility, the equivalent of running our meter on local wind power.
At the UN's low price, though, I can afford to give away Indian wind credits for now.
"Offset someone's carbon footprint for life – that's a great Christmas gift," said Svenningsen.
It beats a lump of coal in the stocking.