Trees and Carbon Offsets

There’s an article in the Christian Science Monitor by  Moises Velasquez-Manoff discussing attempts to standardize the quality of carbon offsets.  Carbon offsets are a big concern to me, especially when a lot of the offsetting is in the future, as is the case with planting trees.  From the box at the end of the article:

And unless a forest is permanent (and who can guarantee that?), trees only temporarily sequester atmospheric carbon. When they burn or decompose, the carbon they contain is released back into the atmosphere. In tropical countries, where trees are most effective as a cooling agent, they’re often up against poverty and political instability. “Does some guy wake up and say, ‘Now I’m the dictator of the country. I want a golf course?’ ” says Michael Dorsey, a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “There’s the big issue.”

Another issue is that trees may e like the old saw about the insurers: someone who lends you an umbrella, but takes it away when it starts to rain.   In the Western US and Canada (as well as many other parts of hte world,) our forests are rapidly dying due to a bark beetle infestation brought on by persistent drought and not enough frost… which makes the ultimate cause of the dieback Global Warming.

My worry is this: you plant a bunch of trees, that are supposed to suck up CO2 and thus slow global warming.  But not enough people are planting trees, etc., so Global Warming continues and the trees die and catch fire due to temperature rises and persistent drought caused by global warming, realeasing any CO2 they have absorbed back into the atmostphere, and compounding the problem.  By counting on trees, we are unintentionally creating a positive feedback loop that could end up accellerating climate change rather than stopping it.

This is why, rather than buying carbon offsets, I prefer to give away CFLs, and I only count the energy saved in real time as offsetting my own carbon emissions… I may have already given away enough CFLs to reduce future electricity consumption over the next decade or two by 72 GWh, but the number I focus on (and I encourage others to focus on as well) is how many kWhs or tons of carbon emissions you have prevented today not how much you may be responsible in the future.  I can’t just give away a 25W CFL with a rated life of 12,000 hours and say I’ve reduced total electricity used emissions by 900 kWh.  If the person I give it to uses the bulb for only 15 minutes a day, it’s going to take 134 years for that bulb to prevent the use of that much electricity… and long before then, we should be operating on electricity that’s mostly renewable based anyway.   Not to mention that within 10-20 years, I expect that the incandescent lightbulb will be only available in antique shops, so if the bulb I give away is still in use 20 years from now, it’s probably just replacing another CFL, for no net energy savings.

In short, carbon credits are a good thing, but an offset that pervents carbon from entering the atmosphere is better than one that takes it out and stores it for some unknown period of time, and it’s much better to prevent carbon today than a year from now.  All in all, buying offsets is a good thing, but we shouldn’t be fooled that it’s nearly as good as reducing our own carbon emissions today.

Further reading:

Green Wombat: Buyer Beware

Celias: Carbon Offset Certification

AutoBlogGreen: REEEP reduces uncertainty

IREA Voices on IREA’s green tag program

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