Counting Carbons
California Lawyer
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Counting Carbons

September 2007

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"It's only a matter of time before carbon trading will be part of the California?and ultimately the U.S.?landscape," Michael Wara says authoritatively, belying the fact that he's been practicing law less than a year. Still, holding a PhD in geochemistry (specializing in topics such as ocean sediments and climate systems), this associate at Holland & Knight in San Francisco has had no trouble finding clients who need his expertise in the emerging field of carbon trading.
      "A lot of what I do is help U.S. companies understand the consequences of domestic carbon trading," he says. His timing is excellent: California recently became the first state in the country to adopt industrywide carbon-emission caps. In addition, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 calls for a 25 percent reduction in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 and directs state agencies to explore market-based solutions to achieve these goals. Carbon trading, or "cap and trade," may be the cheapest and most efficient way to go, says Wara.
      It's one of many approaches the federal government is considering, and it's one the European Union has already adopted. That means Wara is sitting pretty, having focused on carbon trading as a research fellow at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University, where he also earned his law degree.
      Under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, which was set up to meet the Kyoto Protocol target, companies that exceed allotted carbon-emission allowances must purchase credits to cover the difference. But if they produce less carbon than their allotments, they can sell surplus credits for a profit.
      One alternative to buying credits is to participate in the United Nations?administered Clean Development Mechanism program, through which companies and industrialized countries invest in emission-reducing projects in developing countries. Wara has been helping clients create, register, and certify such emission-reduction projects.
      And he's convinced that carbon trading will work to reduce emissions, so long as the cap is stringent enough to create a high price for carbon-emission permits. "It's important to create a financial incentive for existing emitters to rethink their strategy," says Wara. "We need game-changing technology, not just a better scrubber on a smokestack. Right now we don't know what that technology will be, so the best thing we can do is produce the right incentives to spur innovation."

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