We are in a new era of climate accounting, and the rules are being developed as they go. Nations commit to meeting certain benchmarks by certain dates in the more or less distant future, but the accounting is not as simple as measuring increases and reductions in emissions. Nations and especially companies prefer to talk about ‘net’ emissions, as if, in addition to ordinary chimneys and exhaust pipes, they also have a different type, which sucks CO2 from the air and turns it into brown sugar or something.
John Kerry, our climate ambassador, sometimes gives the impression that he’s on this front. He recently predicted that in the future 50% of U.S. non-emissions, or maybe reverse emissions, will come from technology that has yet to be deployed. It is an astonishing futuristic feat: man literally does not know what he is talking about – what technologies, deployed by whom, when? – but he knows how much of his work he can rely on to accomplish. Layer!
Truth be told, the science that will save us has become a bit blunt. The hot trend in climate netting is going back to nature, especially tree planting. The stakes are the future of Earth as a habitable planet, so let’s play it for real, okay?
If the strategy is to become âcarbon neutralâ at a later date, no action is required. All you need is a plan that involves paying someone somewhere to plant trees at some point. Spitball some numbers in the conference room, and your environmental ‘plan’ can be done in an afternoon! Naturally, the carbon footprint of the future is popular with outfits which in the meantime are emitting carbon and making money.
But let’s say your plan is for now. You get trees planted and you want a carbon credit for how those trees will offset your current and future emissions.
So that an entity can credibly claim the job of cleaning up the carbon from the trees it “plants”
1) Trees must be planted on land owned by the entity claiming the credit. Trees mature over decades and do their best job of sucking carbon when they need to be big enough. If you don’t own the land they grow on, you can’t guarantee that they will ever be. No matter what business arrangement you have with the current landowner, it will last until a better deal comes along. These are not the conditions on which we save the world.
2) Your outright ownership of this land must not be unscathed. If you apply for credit now, you must be legally unable to change your mind in the future and sell the property or cut down the trees. The period in which you are required to live up to your part of the contract should be the period in which your current and future emissions will continue to heat the earth. So, several hundred years, or even thousands.
3) The property in question must be land on which trees would not have grown otherwise. There are many trees in the world; they grow naturally, and no one deserves the credit for them (except God, I guess). If you want credit for âyourâ trees, show us that without your investment, the area in question would have been treeless.
Now things are getting really tough. There are two kinds of places where trees do not grow – and where, therefore, you could make them grow and legitimately takes the credit for it. One is developed areas, towns and villages, where roads and buildings, parking lots and playgrounds and lawns don’t leave much space for trees.
But this is the kind of real estate that everyone wants. It’s expensive! Needless to say, no entity of any kind is pursuing this strategy.
Other places where trees aren’t already growing are places where they don’t want to grow. There are oceans, deserts, tundra, our few remaining glaciers – so go for it! Buy half of Sudan, say, and truck a billion tonnes of topsoil, and irrigate it all in perpetuity. Carbon neutral, of course, with solar powered dump trucks and desalination plants. These will surely appear with the chimneys reversed. Whoops! So much for having stipulated that you do this now, not in the futureâ¦.
The only physically real way to combat global warming (which is a physical thing) is to reduce current emissions. There are ways to do it; we know what they are. We know who doesn’t want to cut emissions now, and why. That won’t happen until we force it, which will be politically difficult. We should rather speak of âcarbon offsetsâ. There is always more to say, instead of doing the hard thing.
There is another kind of environmental accounting that is not as fuzzy as the carbon offsetting of future trees, and that is the measure of our continued subsidy of the fossil fuel industry. There are different points of view; conservatively, we US ââtaxpayers are giving this industry some $ 20 billion a year.
Who’s kidding who here?
Eric Kuhn lives in Middletown.
CTViewpoints welcomes rebuttals or opposing views to this and all of its comments. Read our guidelines and submit your comments here.