Issue Papers

From time to time, the Reserve commissions issue papers on potential project types. An issue paper assesses possible issues with developing a standardized protocol for a project type, including an evaluation of potential approaches to GHG emission quantification; exploration of options for defining eligible project activities; evaluation of approaches to setting project boundaries; and assessment of the availability of datasets and other pertinent information.

Recently Completed: Grasslands

To continue exploration of potential carbon sequestration project activities in the agricultural sector, the Reserve commissioned an issue paper to address two potential land-use change (LUC) project activities: avoided conversion of threatened grasslands and conversion of marginal cropland to grassland. These activities have the potential to prevent the release of carbon in soils or enhance soil carbon, respectively. The completed issue paper is available below, as well as the request for proposals, for general information purposes.

The scoping process for soil carbon protocols will kick-off in early 2013. Please see the Soil Carbon Protocols webpage for the most up-to-date information.

Completed Issue Papers

Please expand the issue paper titles below to download completed issue papers and read the Reserve’s determination on the protocol development potential for each project type.

Aerobic and Anaerobic Bioreactors
Project Type: Aerobic and Anaerobic Bioreactors
Issue Paper: Completed — Download PDF
Assessment: Aerobic – Good potential; Anaerobic – Challenging
Remarks: This issue paper covers two project types, each with a separate potential for project protocol development. Aerobic bioreactors (in-situ composting) hold promise as a project type. The additionality is relatively clear, though there is the potential for this activity to preclude regulatory obligations that would have taken effect as NMOC emissions increased in the absence of the project. The potential for GHG reductions is great, and other methodologies exist that the Reserve could use in the development process. There are methodological challenges around the quantification of the baseline emissions and the measurement and quantification of project emissions. The project opportunities are abundant in the U.S. as a whole, but it is not clear that there would be much opportunity in California, due to the strict regulatory baseline.

Anaerobic bioreactors present a similarly large GHG reduction potential, with the added benefit of the production of large quantities of landfill gas that can be put to beneficial use. However, this gas production would not only necessitate a more complex performance standard to ensure achievement of reductions beyond “business as usual,” but it also presents challenges regarding regulatory additionality (anaerobic bioreactors are required to capture and control landfill gas). There would be increased methodological challenges for this type, especially regarding the temporal mismatch between baseline and project emissions.

Blended Cement Production
Project Type: Blended Cement Production
Issue Paper: Completed — Download PDF
Assessment: Limited U.S. potential
Remarks: Although there is significant potential for emission reductions from using blended cement in the United States, most or all of the emissions from cement plants and/or concrete batch plants are likely to be capped in the near future (e.g., 2012 in California, 2015 under federal proposals). Furthermore, higher-blend cement is often a cheaper alternative than standard blends; as the issue paper makes clear, institutional, contractual, market-structure, and regulatory barriers stand in the way of greater use of blended cement. It is not clear that voluntary offset credits would be sufficient to overcome these barriers in the limited time available for crediting before the likely onset of cap-and-trade regulation.
Boiler Efficiency Improvements
Project Type: Boiler Efficiency Improvements
Issue Paper: Completed — Download PDF
Assessment: Promising
Remarks: Boiler efficiency projects are amenable to standardized baselines and additionality determinations, and standardized protocols for U.S. projects have already been developed (RGGI, Climate Leaders). There is significant technical potential for reductions, especially for industrial and commercial boilers (> 75 million tons CO2/year). Although GHG emissions from boilers are likely to be capped (as early as 2012 for large industrial boilers; 2015 for others), there may be cost-effective potential for accelerating improvements in boiler efficiency through offset crediting prior to cap-and-trade. The Reserve is conducting further examination into project costs before making a final decision on protocol development.
Bus Fleet Upgrades
Project Type: Bus Fleet Upgrades
Issue Paper: Completed — Download PDF
Assessment: Standardized protocol would be difficult; possible limited potential
Remarks: Although this is otherwise a promising project type, the issue paper indicates that limitations in national-level data point to the need to develop fleet-specific performance standards for baseline and additionality determination. Furthermore, bus fleet emissions would be capped under some U.S. policy proposals as early as 2015; it is not clear given the potential cost and time required for implementation of bus fleet upgrade projects whether offset credits would significantly accelerate their development prior to the onset of cap-and-trade regulation.
Bus Rapid Transit
Project Type: Bus Rapid Transit
Issue Paper: Completed — Download PDF
Assessment: Not promising in U.S.
Remarks: Based on the issue paper, Reserve staff believe there is limited cost-effective potential for this type of project in the United States (without subsidy, the typical cost would be on the order of thousands of dollars per ton of CO2 reduced). In addition, this type of project is not clearly amenable to standardized baselines or additionality tests. Finally, as the paper indicates, bus fleet emissions would be capped under some U.S. policy proposals as early as 2015; it is not clear given the cost hurdles and lead times for development of BRT projects whether offset credits would significantly accelerate development of these kinds of projects prior to the onset of cap-and-trade regulation.
Methane Avoidance from Composting
Project Type: Methane Avoidance from Composting
Issue Paper: Completed — Download PDF
Assessment: Ready for protocol development
Remarks: Composting projects offer excellent potential for developing standardized baselines and additionality tests depending on the waste stream considered and operation (best management practices) of the composting facility. Eligible organic waste streams identified in the issue paper for composting projects include municipal solid waste (MSW) food and food soiled paper waste. Developing this project type closely follows the work completed for the Organic Waste Digestion Project Protocol since both project types involve diverting organic waste streams from disposal in a landfill. This issue paper led to the development of the Organic Waste Composting Project Protocol.
Operations and Maintenance of Natural Gas Transmission and Distribution Systems
Project Type: Operations and Maintenance of Natural Gas Transmission and Distribution Systems
Issue Paper: Completed — Download PDF
Assessment: Limited future potential for additional reductions; development of a standardized protocol would require intensive research and data collection on current industry practice
Remarks: There are a number of activities in the natural gas transmission and distribution (T&D) sector that could be good candidates for carbon offset crediting. For these activities, reduction opportunities are significant in magnitude, quantifiable, and cost-effective. However, many of these same activities have payback periods of short enough duration that they may become common practice in the absence of carbon offset revenue. Developing a performance standard that sufficiently ensures additionality of such projects would require more robust data concerning industry practice and emissions than is currently available in the public domain. Acquiring industry-wide data of this nature for each of the potential project types would be time and resource intensive. Notwithstanding current policy uncertainties, it is not clear whether offset credits would significantly accelerate candidate project activities (beyond the already favorable economics) prior to the onset of cap-and-trade or other regulations that might affect their rate of implementation. Given the potential cost and time required for development of project protocols, the Reserve has decided not to develop a protocol for natural gas T&D projects at this time.
Soil Carbon Sequestration of Biochar
Project Type: Soil Carbon Sequestration of Biochar
Issue Paper: Completed — Download PDF
Assessment: Further research needed for protocol development
Remarks: Biochar production and use as a soil amendment appears to have potential for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and sequestering carbon in soils. However, a number of issues may complicate the development of a biochar carbon offset protocol at this time. First, there are a great number of possible scenarios for the baseline use of biochar feedstocks, how those feedstocks could be converted into biochar by a project, and subsequently, how biochar could be incorporated into soil. The many possible baseline scenarios and project permutations create considerable challenges in developing a standardized methodology to determine additionality, account for leakage, and estimate secondary GHG emissions. Also, because the production and use of biochar can span multiple entities’ operational control, it may be difficult to verify baseline scenarios and net GHG emission reductions. These complexities could be addressed to some degree by focusing a protocol on a small number of eligible project types involving feedstocks with limited alternative uses and easily defined baseline conditions.

Second, net GHG emission reductions from biochar production and use are dependent on the composition of feedstocks and pyrolysis conditions used to produce biochar, as well as the soil type, microclimate, and cultivation system where biochar is applied. A carbon offset methodology would need to account for the GHG impacts of specific pyrolysis production methods. Currently this could be challenging, in particular because there is no existing mechanism to certify the origin and content of biochar once it reaches the site of application.

Finally, further research and testing is needed to develop rapid, accurate, and robust measurement techniques for quantifying the long-term decay rate of biochar, which is essential for determining the proportion of sequestered carbon that can be credited as a “permanent” offset. Even with such techniques, however, accurate estimates of long-term storage for a given project would take significant time to establish, resulting (under the paper’s proposed framework) in the gradual issuance of offset credits over time. From a financial standpoint, this could make many projects infeasible.

A promising methodological framework is proposed in the issue paper, focusing initially on a limited number of feedstocks and project types. Once various components of the framework are field tested and peer reviewed, development of a full carbon offset protocol may be feasible.

Truck Stop Electrification
Project Type: Truck Stop Electrification
Issue Paper: Completed — Download PDF
Assessment: Low priority due to low emission reduction potential
Remarks: Truck stop electrification projects are amenable to standardized baselines and additionality determinations, and a robust protocol could likely be developed using existing methodologies. However, the emission reduction potential for these kinds of projects in the United States is not likely to be more than 5 million metric tons of CO2 per year, making this category a low priority for protocol development. In addition, the need for a carbon offset protocol for these projects would be obviated should an economy-wide emissions cap be established (such as that proposed under the American Clean Energy and Security Act). Finally, it is not clear that carbon offset revenues, under currently foreseeable market prices, would provide a sufficient return on investment for these types of projects absent significant additional funding. Thus, limited participation would be expected except in cases where external funding is available (e.g., government grants), in which case additionality would be difficult to credibly establish using standardized methods. Based on these findings, the Reserve has decided to not pursue development of a protocol for truck stop electrification at this time.
Tidal Wetland Restoration

Project Type: Tidal Wetland Restoration
Issue Paper: Completed — Download PDF
Assessment: Not ready for protocol development
Remarks: As indicated in the issue paper, significant further research is required to develop accurate quantification and baseline estimation methods for this type of project. Also, developing standardized baselines and additionality tests would probably be difficult. The Reserve may re-evaluate this type of project in the future as research progresses.

If you have questions about issue papers, please contact the Policy Team.