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Carbon Offsets I: unreachable state

The Carbon Neutral Fallacy, Part 1: It sounds so enticingly simple to
anyone with a conscience about their carbon footprint; you can continue
to drive your SUV, rack up flight miles or crank up your air
conditioner guilt-free by simply paying someone, with a click of your
mouse, to plant mango trees in India or install solar panels in Uganda.

Coldplay, Leonardo DiCaprio, Land Rover, London cabs, the 2006 Academy Awards and Seattle’s main power company have all paid to go carbon neutral, or so we’ve been told. But as the old saying goes, when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

For an environmental industry with so much success- the voluntary carbon offset market is valued at around 100 million dollars-, it’s shocking how flawed is the model upon which it is based. The problems include:

  • Carbon subsidies often fund polluting industries.
  • Active carbon pools and fossil carbon pools aren’t interchangeable: the carbon you emit driving your car isn’t the same as the carbon sequestered by planting a tree.
  • Tree plantations (as offset schemes) in developing nations often displace local populations and industry carbon emissions affect local health so their offsetting can’t be completely exported to projects in other locations.
  • Current carbon emissions aren’t interchangeable with future carbon sequestering: you can’t pay for current pollution with carbon capture projects that can take decades, or even a century, to mature.
  • The offsetting industry is highly unregulated.
  • With many offset companies, the majority of their income isn’t spent on the carbon reduction projects.
  • Due to common reliance on middlemen, projects are often mismanaged and failure rates can be high.

As researchers and scientists draw more attention to the flawed carbon offset model, increasingly more industry watch groups are warning consumers and governments to avoid this misleadingly simple solution to our fossil fuel addiction.

“We need to see constructive actions such as a halt to government subsidies for oil development, rather than scientifically-disreputable schemes to ‘compensate’ for continued fossil fuel development, which merely leave an ever-worsening problem for future generations,” counsels Heidi Bachram of Carbon Trade Watch.

Flawed since it’s infancy

The first carbon offset project, launched in 1989, was attempt by US power company, Applied Energy Services (AES), to gain regulatory approval to construct a coal-fired power plant in Connecticut in exchange for planting 50 million non-native pine and eucalyptus trees in Guatemala to theoretically “‘soak up’ the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions expected to be generated for the lifetime of the plant.”

When the project was evaluated 10 years later, the offset target was far below expectations, and according to Professor Hannah Wittman the project failed on many levels.

Not only did it “take access to the trees out of the hands of ordinary people” depriving villagers of access to their subsistence activities in the forest, but the species of trees planted were “often inappropriate for the climate and for degraded land areas.”

In the end, the coal plant was constructed in Connecticut and the Guatemala region was given new problems like local conflict over rights to trees and non-payment to farmers. “The whole problem is it doesn’t address greenhouse-gas emissions. Instead, the idea is, ‘Let’s turn this into a business that lets coal plants pollute, and these poor people in Guatemala will pick up the pieces for you.’ ”

Paying for dying trees and already-launched projects

In the nearly 2 decades since that first project, the industry hasn’t learned from its mistakes. Take Coldplay’s experience as an example.

In 2002 the band paid the CarbonNeutral Company to offset the release of their album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, with the planting of 10,000 mango trees in India. The CarbonNeutral Company paid an Indian company which paid village farmers. As uncovered by the Daily Telegraph, four years later, 40% of the trees had died.

The Academy Awards didn’t fare much better. Organizers paid to neutralize the lifestyle of every presenter by paying offset company TerraPass Inc. for the equivalent emissions reductions associated with one year of a celebrity lifestyle, or 100,000 pounds of CO2.

One of TerraPass’ biggest CO2 reduction projects is their investment in paying an Arkansas garbage dump to reduce methane emissions, but according to a Business Week investigation the facility’s garbage processor, Waste Management Inc., had planned the reductions without the TerraPass money.

These Oscar-hyped offsets became extra revenue for a $13 billion company and they weren’t the only company benefiting from Hollywood’s guilty conscience. Of the other six project developers working with TerraPass that BusinessWeek was able to contact, five claimed “the offsets hadn’t played a significant role in their decision to cut emissions.”

Subsidising polluting industries in the developing world

Ironically, the carbon offsets paid for by members from developed nations in exchange for their “right” to pollute guilt-free, often fund polluters in developing countries.

Ideally, carbon offset projects – whether as a result of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) or voluntary private donations – were conceived to fund renewable technologies like wind, solar, tidal/wave, geothermal and micro-hydro projects, but as it turns out that type of investment is just not as profitable, or convenient, as simply paying polluters to pollute a bit less.

“Carbon-saving schemes that take the trouble to respect community rights, on the other hand, tend to be fiddly, expensive, low-yield, or difficult to implement politically. Revealingly, only 2% of carbon credits from registered CDM projects are generated by renewable energy projects, while over two-thirds come from big installations that destroy industrial gases or burn methane from waste dumps or coal mines.”

Pollute at home and clean up somewhere else

Beyond the rampant poor planning and mismanagement of projects, even if offsetters were able to guarantee that all their projects were financing renewable energy, the whole concept of carbon offsets is inherently flawed

The assumption behind carbon offsetting is that we can pollute in our own environment- whether driving an inefficient car or overheating our homes- and by just paying a bit of money, this will be cleaned up through projects in another country, typically in Africa, Asia or South America. The problem is, science doesn’t support this equation.

While CO2’s impact on global warming may not directly effect a polluter’s own environment, there are many toxic co-pollutants produced by the burning of fossil-fuels which put local communities at risk. Here are some of the combustion-related pollutants and their known or suspected side effects as reported by New Internationalist magazine:

  • Toxic Organic Micropollutants: a whole range of substances that, due to their size, can penetrate the lungs easily and cause health problems. Some of their known effects include more frequent asthma attacks, respiratory problems, and premature death.
  • Sulphur oxides: causes ‘acid rain’ and smog.
  • Carbon monoxide: interferes with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues and results in many adverse health effects including neurological impairment and heart and lung problems.
  • Nitrogen oxides: can cause lung damage and other respiratory disorders (also causes ‘acid rain’ and smog).
  • Arsenic: highly toxic; carcinogenic (cancer-causing); many other toxic effects.
  • Benzene: highly toxic; carcinogenic; disrupts reproductive and neurological systems; anaemia.
  • Mercury: highly toxic; affects child development; impairs brain function.
  • Lead: highly toxic, particularly to children; neurological toxicant.
  • Ozone: lung damage; respiratory impairment.
  • Polycyclic Organic Matter: carcinogenic and respiratory toxicant.
  • Formaldehyde: carcinogen; respiratory impairment; asthma inducer.
  • 1,3-Butadiene: carcinogen; neurological impairment; cardiovascular disease.

Pollute now, clean up in 100 years

Another problem with the offset concept is what Kevin Smith of the New Internationalist calls “Enron-style accounting”; offsetters are not taking into account the life-cycle of their projects. So while the carbon emissions made by someone donating to offset a plane flight is immediate, the related offsetting project, whether a tree plantation or a wind farm, will take time to “neutralise” those emissions, often as long as a century.

“If that person keeps offsetting regularly, their rate of emissions rises at a much faster rate than the rate at which their activities are being ‘neutralised’ — to the point at which, far from being climate neutral, quite the opposite is true.”

Why carbon is not always carbon and the trouble with trees

One of the most obvious longer-term projects are tree plantations, but their long maturation period is not the least of the problems with planting trees to neutralise our emissions.

Besides mismanagement problems like the displacement of locals by the large plantation companies and the planting of non-native trees, such as the popular water-depleting eucalyptus, the basic rationale behind planting trees may be flawed. The idea behind planting trees to offset emissions is that trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere and this will offset the carbon released by burning fossil fuels, but this reasoning ignores the fundamental difference between the two ways in which carbon is stored on our planet.

There is the “active carbon pool”- the carbon which continually moves between forests, the atmosphere and the oceans. There is also the “fossil carbon pool”- that which is normally locked away in coal, oil and gas deposits. These two pools are normally constant, but when we mine, extract and burn the fossil carbon to power our daily lives, we disrupt a delicate natural balance.

“This is one of the reasons that the concept of ‘offsets’ is flawed. Offsets allow extraction of oil, coal and gas to continue, which in turn increases the amount of fossil carbon that is released into the active carbon pool disrupting the cycle. That is why campaigners argue that genuine solutions to climate change require us to keep fossil carbon (oil, coal and gas) in the ground.”

Oliver Rackham, a Cambridge University botanist, told The New Internationalist magazine, “Telling people to plant trees [to solve climate change] is like telling them to drink more water to keep down rising sea levels.”

Can trees hold onto our carbon?

Not only is it impossible for tree planting to affect the reduction of the fossil carbon pool, but it is debatable whether, and for how long, they can capture active carbon.

Tree plantations may be able to provide temporary storage for CO2, but probably not for at least 10 years from when they are planted. The problem when land is cleared to plant trees, there is a release of CO2 from the rotting organic matter in the soil. According to CarboEurope researchers only after a decade will carbon uptake offset the losses from soils. CarboEurope chairman Han Dolman told The New Internationalist magazine that some forests planted on wet, peaty soils will never absorb as much carbon as they emit.

A study headed by Johan Six of the University of California at Davis found that tree growth, and their ability to capture CO2, will be limited by insufficient nitrogen in the soil. Six told SciDev.Net that trees can capture CO2 only if nitrogen is added to the soil ‘at rates well above typical atmospheric inputs’.

Additionally, the team found that not only nitrogen, but other soil nutrients were also limiting factors to plant growth. “The bottom line, says Six, is that we ‘cannot rely on nature to clean up’ industrial carbon dioxide emissions.”

To be continued…

In part two of our carbon offset series, we’ll explore why some are calling the industry “the Wild West”: how lack of regulation is allowing providers, often for-profit companies, to contribute as little as 25% of donations to actual carbon reduction projects and why it’s difficult to determine exactly how much carbon a flight or a car trip actually are emitting. Plus, we’ll rank offset providers and introduce you to the voluntary ratings that currently exist.

  • Click here to read the second part of this article.