The COP-18 environmental conference held in Doha has come and gone. A result was that the Kyoto Protocol was extended, but only after bitter debate. It strikes me that the extension of the Kyoto Protocol was a case of countries not having the courage to stop it, and not actually knowing what to do next. So the easy way out was to just extend Kyoto and also promise the developing world lots and lots of dollars for ‘climate mitigation,’ which is a sort of apology from the first world for the accusation that they messed up the planet in the first place. Whether the billions of promised dollars will really appear is another matter.

I picked up a South African magazine and read an article concerning carbon trading. The article headline was: “The Big C is a Money Tree.” There was a picture of a tree with hundreds of dollar bills hanging on the branches.

In essence the article said that people can easily make loads of money in the carbon trading business. Much of the sentiment was correct.

UN carbon trading money treeSo alarm bells should be ringing. When it appears easy to make a lot of money from something simple then in all probability something is wrong. The economic rules which govern the world usually dictate that it is not easy to make a lot of money with not much effort.

Consider the hamburger market. If it is easy to sell a large number of hamburgers and make a lot of money, then what happens is that a competitor joins the market, and another, and another. The result is that the quality of the hamburgers goes up and the price comes down. This is all because the natural competition forces the sellers to offer the best quality at the lowest price.

If one of the hamburger sellers can’t make the grade they go out of business. None of the hamburger sellers really wants to be kind and sympathetic to the consumers, but they have no option but to be attentive to the customers or the else they just go to a competitor. Hamburger suppliers have to offer a good product at a good price to stay in business. So the basis of the hamburger business is good cooking and efficient meal production.

So one can ask the question: what is the basis of the carbon trading business? Well it is buying or renting fresh air. Sounds dicey, doesn’t it?

What happens is that if some company, say in Germany, wants to extend their factory, and they are going to have to produce carbon dioxide gas (CO2) in the operation of the plant, they may find that they will exceed their CO2 emission quota.

So then what they have to do is to come to a country like South Africa and look for some piece of land where they can plant some plants, to take CO2 out of the air, or they have to find some factory emitting CO2 and go there and implement some clean air technology to regularly remove some tons of CO2 from the factory’s emission. As soon as they, say, remove 10 tons of CO2 per day from some air in South Africa then they can put the same amount of CO2 back into the air in Germany, and hey presto, all is great because on balance the total CO2 that they emit into the air of the whole world balances out. Then the German company pays the South African company a lot of dollars per month to keep the South African air ‘clean’, so that the German company can put the ‘saved’ CO2 back into the air in Germany.

So the basis of the carbon trading business is to rent clean air from somebody else.

Therefore if you launch a major project to develop a new factory, and a significant part of the budget is carbon trading income, then don’t forget that renting clean air is part of the asset of the business.

If the Kyoto Protocol collapses and the clean air requirement falls away then your investment blows away in a breeze…of ‘clean’ air.

Many people would never build their new factory on a foundation of sand, but they are happy to build it on a foundation of air. I say: “Be careful.”
If it turns out that man-made industrial CO2 is not leading to climate change then the whole carbon market could disappear faster than a puff of wind.

Remember that measured CO2 concentration increase in the earth’s atmosphere over the last century, does not match global temperature increase very well; in fact a good correlation is distinctly absent. There is also a competing theory indicating that the sun’s magnetic influence on incoming cosmic radiation seems to match the observed temperature profile of the planet a lot better. This theory relates to varying cloud cover, influenced by the varying amount of incoming cosmic radiation.

The carbon trading business seems too good to be true. Money trees are not common. Warning bells should be ringing.


  • Kelvin Kemm

    Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and CEO of Nuclear Africa (Pty) Ltd, a project management company based in Pretoria, South Africa. He is the recipient of the prestigious Lifetime Achievers Award of the National Science and Technology Forum of South Africa. He does international consultancy work in strategic development.