(From Hawaii Reporter January 5, 2009)
Carbon credits or offsets are a theoretical way for you to assuage your guilt for all those awful greenhouse gases you’re releasing into the air whenever you heat your house, drive your car, or even breathe.
Carbon offsets are used by politicians, environmentalists, movie stars, athletes and others to claim the impact of their high-consumption lifestyles on the environment can be canceled out by paying someone else to invest in carbon-reducing initiatives. Some folks have reported that they plant 500 trees to offset one of their private jet trips. What they didn’t say is that it may take 20 years for the infant trees to make up for their 2-hour Lear Jet outing.
Lorrie Goldstein likens carbon offsets to the equivalent of a fat person claiming he’s losing weight by paying a thin person to go on a diet. Or, it’s like paying someone to agree to not commit adultery so you can sin at will.
The planting of trees is one of the more highly touted offsets. Some folks claim that carbon offsets from this activity are nonsense because the emissions are instant, whereas the tree’s absorption is over many years. You can’t offset carbon emissions. Burning fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide to the carbon cycle. Trees merely store some of it for a while before releasing it once they rot or burn. They’re not an offset, merely a delaying device. Plus, the Earth would eventually have to be nothing but trees to even theoretically counter the impact of all man-made emissions.
There are other problems. It’s impossible to say how much carbon a tree will store, so you can’t know how many to plant for your emissions. Beyond that, you can’t tell what your emissions are; figures on offset websites for miles driven don’t take into account your miles per gallon or how many passengers to divide it among. Figures for a train journey would surely be different if it’s a packed rush hour train compared to a late afternoon one with only half a dozen passengers on board.
Besides this, a number of investigations have revealed tree planting to be largely if not entirely, a scam notes Nigel Lawson in his book An Appeal to Reason. He says, “The trees that have allegedly been planted may not have been; if they have been, they may well have been planted in any event, and either way their carbon absorption is notional, unverified, and at best, some way into the future.” Some tree-planting projects in Guatemala, Ecuador and Uganda have been accused of disrupting water supplies; evicting thousands of villagers from their land; seizing grazing rights from farmers, and cheating local people of promised income, reports Nick Davies. In some cases the trees may not live. One example; many of the 10,000 mango trees planted to offset the carbon produced by the music group Coldplay died.
You can even plant the wrong kind of tree in the wrong place. Trees affect the reflectivity of the Earth and its ability to bounce some of the sun’s heat back into space. Covering large swatches of light ground with dark trees could lead to more heat being absorbed, boosting temperatures. Researchers Gregory Asner and his colleagues report that only trees planted in equatorial regions are likely to produce a net benefit. Those planted further away—especially in high latitudes where snow is common—are likely to lead to increased global warming. Also, non-native trees invading a rainforest can change its basic ecological structure, rendering it less hospitable to the myriad plant and animal species that depend on its resources.
Alan Zarembo, in a Los Angeles Times article, sums this up well, “Beneath feel-good simplicity of buying your way to carbon neutrality is a growing concern that the idea is more hype than solution.” And, from Nigel Lawson, “In many ways , it resembles nothing so much as the sale of indulgences by a medieval church. This is nowadays regarded as a reprehensible practice; but perhaps bearing in mind its 21st century equivalent, that is too harsh a verdict.”