UNITED NATIONS -- They are the carbon offsetting projects most hated by environmentalists, but there may now be an opportunity to put an end to them.
Currently, there are five coal-fired power plants registered as emission reduction projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), an international offsetting program run by an arm of the United Nations. Pressure from developing nation governments led to their inclusion in the program, as supporters claim the newer supercritical coal plants avoid carbon dioxide emissions by preventing dirtier plants from being built instead.
But issuing carbon offset credits to projects that emit enormous quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has attracted near universal opposition from environmental organizations, which call the practice absurd.
Most groups have called for an end to crediting coal plants with fighting global warming. Those voices of opposition may finally get their wish, at least temporarily.
A CDM advisory panel that reviews the methodologies behind various offsetting schemes last week recommended that the coal plant offsets be suspended immediately. The Executive Board of the CDM will take up that recommendation during a meeting under way this week.
The panel argues that the current rules as written let supercritical coal plant developers claim avoided emissions by comparing their projects to power plant technology that's now a decade old. As supercritical technology becomes more mainstream and power generators normally improve on the efficiency of even their oldest plants over the course of operations, the loophole allows plants requesting CDM credits to exaggerate the calculated emissions avoided by millions of tons of CO2-equivalent gases, the panel warns.
A vote in favor of the panel's recommendation by the board won't kill the projects completely -- the panel also recommends revising the methodology to account for the annual efficiency improvements expected in the coal energy industry. The suspension is designed to provide time for a more thorough review and revision.
But activists are hoping for at least a temporary suspension to prevent the first CDM credits for registered coal plant facilities from being issued in the first place.
"Given that the average capacity of the registered projects and those in the validation pipeline are in the range of 2,000-3,000 [megawatts], resulting in a large amount of emission reductions per project activity, extra caution should be given to ensure that the baseline emissions are estimated in a transparent and conservative manner," the panel says in its recommendation to the Executive Board.
The methodology panel says the coal-fired plant projects should be suspended to allow time "to revise the procedure to identify the most likely baseline scenario."
Indian and Chinese plants at risk
The plants at risk of being denied carbon credits include four in India and one in China built with the assistance of the United Kingdom. Indian coal plants under the CDM received financial backing from the World Bank, sparking an outcry against that organization by groups that argue that the bank's support for the coal industry is inconsistent with its other efforts to tackle climate change.
One coal project, led by the giant Indian conglomerate Tata, was rejected by the CDM, but nonprofit watchdogs say that application is being resubmitted. Another project in India is currently being reviewed by the CDM secretariat in Bonn, Germany.
The CDM awards successfully registered projects Certified Emission Reductions (CERs), credits that can be sold to governments or into the European Union's carbon cap-and-trade program.
"None of the projects registered under ACM0013 has so far received CERs," said CDM office spokesman David Abbass. ACM0013 is the title of the methodology governing coal projects.
Abbass did not indicate when CER issuances to the registered projects would commence. But a vote by the Executive Board in favor of the methodology panel's recommendation would immediately freeze all outstanding issuance requests and put on hold applications by new coal plants requesting admission to the CDM.
The European nonprofit CDM Watch estimates that allowing plants to measure their emissions levels against older coal-fired power generating technology lets developers exaggerate their greenhouse gas savings by 25 to 50 percent above where they actually are.
CDM Watch and others have been fighting to get coal plants out of the international offsetting scheme for years, but political support from China and India for keeping them in has so far prevented their removal.
"The projects perpetuate the burning of coal, the world's most carbon intensive fossil fuel," CDM Watch says in a note commenting on the methodology panel's recommendation. "The financial support of coal projects fundamentally undermines the CDM's climate mitigation goals. "
Justin Guay, an associate with the International Climate Program at the Sierra Club, said it would be ideal for the Executive Board to toss out the methodology entirely when they review the panel's recommendation during their 62nd meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, this week. But he and others hope that a suspension of the methodology will at least begin to shed more light on the problems inherent in supporting such projects with offset credits.
"There are issues aside from the very concept of having coal in the CDM that basically exposes how faulty this methodology is," Guay said. "They use default emissions factors for various types of coals, they have to use various efficiency rates and things like that, and slight tweaks in those has huge impacts when you're talking about hundreds of millions of credits."