Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Land based carbon offsets, a feasible way to save the planet?

A second conversation i had this weekend was about carbon offsets. I really need to write something clear about my views on this as several people running forestry offsets have approached me. Many of these people are well intentioned but, in my opinion, misguided.

The following debate sets out a few of my primary concerns, comments welcome. Thanks to Ru Hartwell for his time, in engaging in a meaningful debate, it is often easy for people to push aside any concerns about there work, even for environmentalists who are genuinely concerned about its impact.



Initial Letter From Ru

Please could you check us out at
http://www.treeflights.com/ . We 're trying to provide an easy way for airline passengers to take more responsibility for their emissions.We're also aiming to be a more honest about offsetting than some of the other groups out there. Any feedback would be welcome.

My Initial Response

Thanks for your email, i had a look at your site. I really like the projects that you are carying out, they certainly sound good for the local environment. You are also honest about the value of trees as a carbon offset, and as you say this is in stark contrast to other biomass based
carbon offets. I just wish you would find another way to raise funds for our valuable projects. I`m sure i dont need to explain the inherrent difficulties of verifyig offset over the relavent timescale but i will point out my 2 main concerns.

1. Fossil fuels are millions of years old and are safely locked up. Biological carbon offsets artificially seperate the short term carbon cycle...trying to increase the proportion of carbon in biomass such as trees cannot possibly be gaurenteed over the coming years, will climate
change kill the trees that are being planted? Will the trees dry out the soil and increase decompositio of high carbon soil?

2. renewable energy carbo offsets can be effectively verified so if you would like to run a carbon offset business then why wuld you take on land use offsets and take up an additinal risk? And why would i help to promote such a risy proposition when low risk alternatives are available?

I think you are doing great work, just not at fighting climate change.

Ru's Initial Response


You've given me quite a lot to deal with there. I take your concerns very seriously and will try to deal with them one by one. Fossil fuels are millions of years old, true but given our human propensity to exploit them (at current staggering rates) to describe them as "safely"
locked up is not valid.Do you think we're going to stop using that stuff before the last drop is gone?Basically all of the carbon in those fossil reserves has one ultimate destination - our atmosphere. You are so right to say that its better left where it is but I don't think its realistic to
hope that we'll leave it there. Yes, a tree is not as secure a sink as an underground fossil reserve but the point is that that reserve is not safe either.

There is an Oak tree in Estonia that is 1500 years old. We grow only hardwoods that ultimately can be processed for construction timber that with the appropriate preservation techniques may lock up the CO2 for even longer. But you are right, sooner or later that stuff is going to get back into the atmosphere.

We plant 8 species,apart from increasing the biodiversity, we do this so that if some can't cope with climate change others will. The planting sites are all shallow soil, mountainous locations of little fertility and (I suspect ) low carbon content. and most evidence indicates that forested land is better at water retention than non-planted land . Furthermore trees can also sequester carbon into the soil beneath them. Can renewable energy offsets be so effectively verified.? When the calulations are drawn up are the embodied energy costs taken into account.?How much CO2 is released to smelt all the aluminium and steel in those turbines?Is anybody counting? (I've generated all my own power from renewable sources for 20 years).What about all that copper cable used to transmit the electricity around.Loads of gas was released when that was made.

I've got 20,000 trees in the nursery and enough land to plant them on.Conservatively they'll fix 5,000 tons of CO2 .I know its a meaningless drop in the ocean of climate change and I know it's temporary.

From the perspective of climate change do you think it would be better for me to bin them, Calvin?

I share many of your concerns,

My Second Response

First off two points about this conversation: 1. You make me feel like a bastard criticising what is a great project in many ways and what comes from good intentions 2. I get fairly regular emails from various enviromentalists/businesses and have been contacted by 3 carbon offset companies, although the temptation is always to say good work to all these people for there well meaing actions I restrain myself and try to give an honest account.

At some point i`m going to have to write something cogent and reasonably substantial to present my views on carbon offsets more clearly than i can through a spontaneous email, a couple of my contacts are verging on being offended by my lack of faith, because i know them and trust them but don't trust there projects.

Anyway, onward...


Fossil fuels are millions of years old, true but given our human propensity to exploit them (at current staggering rates) to describe them as "safely" locked up is not valid.Do you think we're going to stop using that stuff before the last drop is gone? Basically all of the carbon in those fossilreserves has one ultimate destination - our atmosphere. You are so right to say that its better left where it is but I don't think its realistic tohope that we'll leave it there. Yes, a tree is not as secure a sink as an underground fossil reserve but the point is that that reserve is not safe either.

The point you make here is--to my undderstanding--that underground reserves are not entirely safe and that we should therefore not expect offsets to be entirely safe either, it is certainly implicit if not explicit. But i will leave that an apporach it from a clearer angle. I know people who will fly on holiday then use a carbon offset and calim carbon neutrality...some will by more to compensate for the delay in removing emmited co2. Carbon neutral for them--and for most people--means that there encouragement of the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves has been countered by a reduction of emand from others or a permenant sequestration of aid carbon. Carbon underground isnt safe i current times and this is due to people paing fossil fuel companies, as the antithesis of fosil fuel companies that certainty-->uncertainty arrow has to be reversed by offset companies that aswell as the fixed-->atmospheric arrow it is what my friends pay for. To elaborate further, the uncertainty that you describe is part of the behaviour that you and other organisations are offsetting.

There is ofcourse the added complexity that people may understand this and adjust there behaviour with regards energy usage, just as much as if they couldnt use offsets. This is a matter of judgement, it is impossible to know how much profligate energy usage that carbon offsets permit by reducing guilt and how much benefit there is as people act just lke they would even if they couldnt offset, its a nasty balancing act.

There is an Oak tree in Estonia that is 1500 years old. We grow only hardwoods that ultimately can be processed for construction timber that with the appropriate preservation techniques may lock up the CO2 for even longer. But you are right, sooner or later that stuff is going to get back into the atmosphere. We plant 8 species,apart from increasing the biodiversity, we do this so that if some can't cope with climate change others will. The planting sites are all shallow soil, mountainous locations of little fertility and (Isuspect ) low carbon content. and most evidence indicates that forested land is better at water retention than non-planted land . Furthermore trees can also sequester carbon into the soil beneath them.

There isn't anything substantive in this to be argued with, a applaud your use of 8 species of hardwood trees, the advantaes of this over many other carbon offset orestry schemes are significant. End of the day, my point about uncertainty when compared to energy efficiency and renewables still hold. Although, a significant, but hard to qauntify amount of your projects carbon will be locked up for the next few hundered years where our fight for mitigation is most intense.

Can renewable energy offsets be so effectively verified.? When the calulations are drawn up are the embodied energy costs taken into account.?How much CO2 is released to smelt all the aluminium and steel in those turbines?Is anybody counting? (I've generated all my own power from renewable sources for 20 years).What about all that copper cable used to transmit the electricity around.Loads of gas was released when that was made.

This is where i clearly state: i am no expert i am expressing my relatively informed opinion only, this is all i have to base my decisions on. My response to your questions is: good questions but yes, these are indeed far easier to qauntify than forestry offset programs. Cradle to grave emmissions of renewable technologies are tricky but doable to a fair degree of accuracy. Some tech offsets probably dont take these into accont but the best in class surely do.


I've got 20,000 trees in the nursery and enough land to plant them on. Conservatively they'll fix 5,000 tons of CO2 .I know its a meaningless drop in the ocean of climate change and I know it's temporary. From the perspective of climate change do you think it would be better for
me to bin them, Calvin?


If you are doing this as a paid for offset then i cant answer the question, i refer you back to "there is ofcourse an added complexity.." above. If you are planting them because you have funding from another source and you are trying to help local species then there is a real offset that is an added bonus...its just dificult to qauntify. My personal opinion is that if there is a way to get funding for forestry schemes as comunity projects or conservation projects for rare species then this carbon ofset is a great bonus from this...if you are simply after building a business on carbon offset then i, personally, for what it is worth, would strongly reccomend looking int energy efficency or renewables in developing countries with sustainable development spinoffs.

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3 Comments:

At 1:16 AM, Blogger ben said...

I don't really know what to think about all of this yet.

Fist of all, I have a feeling that these types of offsets make people believe that they don't have to cut back on their driving/flying/way of life. I think it would be better to build carbon offsets into the price of a product (which would basically be a carbon tax) because this way it would discourage spending. I think that carbon offsets today may actually encourage people to drive more/fly more because it eases their mind. Treeflights.com is a good example of this with their slogan: "We plant. You fly." In my opinion, that's just rediculous. Ecouraging people to fly as long as they plant a tree? WTF? Ru said that each tree removes 0.25 ton CO2. Flying emits more than that.

Second of all, there are a lot of different products out there. Carbon credits, green tags, planting trees. Most of these companies will have you believe that you are carbon neutral if you buy their product. But, how do they prove that the money that has been forked over is actually going towards removing your CO2 emissions? I see ads for companies selling a ton of CO2 offsets for anything from $10-$50. Why is there this variation? From the email by Ru, you can calcualte that Treeflight.com charges $40 (UK)/ton. 1 ton CO2 in the EU costs ~$20 euro. Some people charge less. I'm not comfortable with the discrepancy and people thinking that $X will mean that we can continue what we're doing.

 
At 10:36 PM, Anonymous Ru said...

Ben, Hi. It's Ru here. I'm still working on a reply to Calvin and in the meantime can't resist posting a response to your comment. If my project encourages people to fly then it has no ethical validity whatsoever.
In setting up the venture one of my main aims was to be honest about some of the awkward truths that the other offset companies want to ignore.
It takes a very long time for the tree to re-absorb the CO2. If the offset companies are promising "carbon-neutral flights"- as many are, then I think your thesis is valid. Basically, people are flying around the planet thinking its fine because they 've paid to have a twig planted and now their flight is carbon neutral so everything is fine!
We're at pains on our site to make sure that the visitor is under no illusions about the time frame.
Furthermore, our customers feedback to us that "making it a Treeflight" helps them to acknowledge that their flight is damaging to the environment. It is precisely this change in attitude that is required for us to start reducing the amount of flying that we are doing.
I've never said each tree absorbs 0.25 tonnes of CO2. That is a conservative mean average figure for all the trees in our nursery. On the site we give people the chance to choose from 8 species. To model this clearly for you. A rapid growing Birch might weigh 250 kgs at maturity(60-80 years). On the other hand a slow growing Beech might weigh-in at 6000 kgs (125-150 years) Since approx 1/4 of the live weight of a tree is composed of fixed atmospheric CO2 this gives a range of CO2 fixation from 62.5kgs for the Birch to 1500kgs for the Beech.
To put this in context a single flight from London to New York releases roughly 600 kgs of CO2. Its up to the customer to decide which species is planted.
I would love my service to be included in the passengers ticket price and early on in thee development of the business I approached airlines with a view to such a link-up.Unfortunately they've still got their heads in the sand regarding the destucctive nature of their business and won't touch our service with a bargepole.
I agree with a lot of what you say.But if I thought i was encouraging one more person to fly I'd bin the project tomorrow.
Please visit the site to get a true picture of our service.

 
At 7:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This interesting article on the topic just came out today:

http://www.triplepundit.com/pages/askpablo-land-use-changes-002571.php

 

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