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NEWS: Carbon offsets a false solution to clean water

Tina Rosenberg recently wrote in the New York Times that, “Nearly a billion people don’t have drinkable water. Lack of water – and the associated lack of toilets and proper hygiene – kills 3.3 million people a year, most of them children under five. Lack of access to clean water is one of the world’s biggest health problems. And it is one of the hardest to solve. Lots of different groups dig wells and lay pipes – but the biggest challenge comes after the hardware is in.”

“People who work on providing clean water in poor countries estimate that about half the projects fall into disrepair soon after their builders move on. Sometimes someone loots the pump. Or it breaks and no one knows how to fix it. Or perhaps spare parts are available only in major cities. Or the needed part costs too much for the village to afford – even if it is just a few dollars.” Her answer? “Now there’s a new way to save water projects from an early death: make clean water a for-profit business, charging people an unusual price: zero.”

“A water business run by a company that has headquarters in Switzerland, Vestergaard Frandsen, plans to provide clean water to some of the world’s poorest people and charge them nothing. Where will the profits come from? Polluters. What will make this work are the global carbon credit markets. (These) markets provide a way for wealthy countries and corporations to offset their emissions of these gases by financing other projects that will reduce emissions. …By giving people an alternative to boiling water in order to purify it, (Vestergaard Frandsen) will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in countries where trees are scarce. Boiling water is harmful for many reasons. Burning coal produces greenhouse gases, and certain ways of burning wood can, too. …The constant need for wood is deforesting poor countries. …So for many reasons, finding a usable alternative to boiling is good for people and good for the earth.”

“Vestergaard Frandsen’s LifeStraw (is) a hollow stick equipped with a series of filtering membranes. You put the end of the stick in a river or puddle – or a toilet, for that matter – and suck on it. By the time the water hits your lips, it is clean and safe – its filters are fine enough to trap virtually all bacteria, viruses and parasites. (With) the LifeStraw Family (you) pour dirty water in the top, open the tap and clean water comes out the bottom. …The company is on the way to getting approval from one of the carbon credit markets for the LifeStraw Family, and expects to win it in February. Approval will provide a way for Vestergaard Frandsen to recoup its $24 million initial investment and to turn the product into a sustainable business – at no cost to users. It will earn credits for preventing greenhouse gas emissions, credits that polluters will then buy.”

In August 2009, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation announced they had started the first water offset market “allowing businesses and individuals to offset their water use in the same fashion as one would offset their carbon emissions.” Basically, by purchasing a ‘BEF Water Restoration Certificate’ a company or individual can buy/ trade one thousand gallons of water for “a critically dewatered stream.” And in April 2009, the UK company Climate Exchange PLC proposed the idea of applying the model of carbon cap-and-trade markets to water. Their plan? Cap water extraction rights from the Great Lakes and then sell those rights to the highest bidder. Maude Barlow and Wenonah Hauter commented that, “Water is a human right, not a corporate commodity. The idea that it can or should be bought, sold or traded away to the highest bidder must be stopped.”

At the climate summit in Copenhagen, Barlow stated that climate change has a severe impact on water availability – less rainfall in some areas, higher evaporation rates, lower lake levels, diminished glaciers, a scarcity of drinking water, drought. She also noted that our displacing, mistreating and abusing of water is a cause of climate change. She said, “We need a restoration strategy for water as a key mitigation factor.” And she highlighted that we are building a water justice movement parallel to the climate justice movement, both of which reject market solutions to these crises. She said, “Climate justice is water justice, you can’t have one without the other.”

The Council of Canadians has called for an end to offsets in national and international climate agreements. “Offsets are a false, market-based solution to the climate crisis. Internationally, carbon offsets under the Kyoto Protocol have allowed a ‘business as usual’ approach to reign. Offsets have provided global North countries a loophole to avoid needed domestic emission reductions by purchasing carbon credits generated in the global South – credits that have failed to bring about significant additional emission reductions (reductions that would not have happened otherwise).”

The New York Times opinion piece is at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/15/clean-water-at-no-cost-just-add-carbon-credits/. More on the water offset market at http://www.rivernetwork.org/blog/7/2009/11/06/carbon-you-can-now-buy-water-offsets. More on water cap and trade at http://canadians.org/campaignblog/?p=340.