If a tree falls in Brazil, it will, in fact, be heard in the U.S. - at least if a little-noticed provision in the pending climate-change bill in Congress becomes law.
As part of the far-reaching climate bill, the House is set to vote Friday on a plan to pay companies billions of dollars not to chop down trees around the world, as a way to reduce global warming.
The provision, called “offsets,” has been attacked by both environmentalists and business groups as ineffective and poorly designed. Critics contend it would send scarce federal dollars overseas to plant trees when subsidies are needed at home, while the purported ecological benefits would be difficult to quantify.
The offsets “would be a transfer of wealth overseas,” said William Kovacs, vice president for environmental affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the official fiscal scorekeeper on Capitol Hill, has not offered an estimate on how much the offset plan would cost, but the liberal Center for American Progress says it will be pricey.
“The international offsets market is not a huge or cheap market,” said Joseph Romm, a climate expert at the center. “By 2020, the U.S. could be spending $4 billion on international offsets.”
Supporters of the legislation counter that the plan recognizes the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to curb global warming - in the United States and beyond. Supporting ways to keep trees alive or plant new trees, wherever those trees are located, helps the effort, they say.
Under the program, the government would reward domestic and international companies that perform approved “green” actions with certificates, called permits.
Those companies could, in turn, sell the permits to other companies that emit greenhouse gases. The permits would be, in effect, licenses to pollute - and potentially very valuable.
The heart of the climate plan would require major polluters to purchase the permits if they want to pollute above a certain level, controlling overall emissions through a market that is called “cap-and-trade.”
Under the provision to be voted on in the House, the “green” companies could sell their offset permits to companies that need them because they are unable to reduce their own emissions as fast as the government would like.
But critics from both the political left and right see problems.
“You have to ask yourself, what is the purpose of this provision? Because it won’t actually reduce emissions,” said David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel to the Sierra Club, the environmental advocacy group.
Mr. Bookbinder said emissions could actually stay the same or increase domestically because companies could choose to buy permits instead of invest in technology to make their operations cleaner.