Carbon offsets--reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from an activity in one place to compensate for emissions elsewhere--can reduce the cost of regulatory programs to limit emissions because the cost of creating an offset may be less than the cost of requiring entities to make the reductions themselves. To be credible, however, an offset must be additional--it must reduce emissions below the quantity emitted in a business-as-usual scenario--among other criteria. In the U.S., there are no federal requirements to limit emissions and offsets may be purchased in a voluntary market. Outside the U.S., offsets may be purchased on compliance markets to meet requirements to reduce emissions. The Congress is considering adopting a market-based cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Such a program would create a price on emissions based on the supply and demand for allowances to emit. Under such a program, regulated entities could potentially substitute offsets for on-site emissions reductions, thereby lowering their compliance costs. Today's testimony summarizes GAO's prior work examining (1) the challenges in ensuring the quality of carbon offsets in the voluntary market, (2) the effects of and lessons learned from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), an international offset program, and (3) matters that the Congress may wish to consider when developing regulatory programs to limit emissions.
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