Previous month:
August 2023
Next month:
October 2023

RP - Offsets are off-putting

Repost from Aug 22/23 

Photo-1441974231531-c6227db76b6eOffsets are off-putting

Is this just a Shell game? 

Hopefully, this is not a pessimistic rant, but more of an exploration as I try to understand how some of these solutions work. Corrections are welcome, I'll edit them in after.

The capture/offset process is pretty simple. Trees consume carbon dioxide (CO2) as they grow, changing it to cellulose (wood) and thus capturing carbon out of the atmosphere. It's estimated that 1 Hectare, of about 500 trees, will lock down 12 tonnes of CO2 per year, over a 20-year period. (FYI - 100 hectares - 1 sq km.) In our battle against climate change, as we teeter closer and closer to the point of no return, we should be fighting on two fronts. We could drastically reduce the rate at which we are polluting, plus take measures to reduce the existing pollution, such as planting trees like mad. But reducing the pollution rate means present-day economic losses. Not reducing now means future losses that will be even greater, but that future cost has much less impact on our minds. So, trees are used to just offset some increasing pollution, rather than reduce the total. That 12 tonnes of pollution reduction can be sold as an offset to someone else who wants to start a process with 12 tonnes of pollution generation and voila - net zero pollution.

These carbon offsets, these credits, can also be generated by deferring the harvest of trees or the disturbance of soil so as to leave the carbon safely sequestered. So not only can you gain marketable credits for planting trees, you can get them just for not cutting them down, whether that be saving part of your own woodlot or stopping deforestation in the Amazon. Or big polluters, such as petrochemical companies, can clean up part of a process and claim credits for it. Credits that can then be used to 'allow' somebody else to pollute. Seems pretty obvious to me we have a net increase in pollution here.

Complicating the pollution issue is that Canada, like much of the world, is in the midst of unprecedented forest fires. We have 14 Million hectares burnt here so far. That's almost 4% of our total forest cover. There have been several deaths, tens of thousands displaced from their homes, whole communities razed to the ground with millions in property damage from fire and smoke. And we have also over one billion tonnes of CO2 pollution, formerly locked up in those trees, released into the atmosphere. Plus various other gases, and the heat from the fire itself. That CO2 amount is over twice our previous record for a whole year, and the season is not nearly over yet, not in Canada, not in the rest of the world.

Back to these offsets, how about timeframes for this credit payment plan? It's still not clear to me that there are any proper guidelines around this. You might get paid that offset credit over a timeframe or as an upfront lump sum. In the latter case, there's little incentive to keep going with that commitment. Or maybe later someone else can claim an offset credit for not cutting those same trees down.

Not a lot of clarity here, this whole offset scheme seems a little sketchy. There seems to be a lot of abuse by companies eager to 'greenwash', to falsely portray themselves as environmentally friendly. The Guardian published a good article on these abuses in January of 2023, focusing on the leading industry certifier, Verra. The article concluded that more than 90% of their rainforest offset credits – among the most commonly used by companies such as Disney and Shell – are likely to be “phantom credits” and do not represent genuine carbon reductions.

After 20 years, pulpwood trees will be ready for harvesting, but the resulting paper products will soon decompose and release that carbon again. For lumber, the wait before harvesting could be 40-60 years, after which it would hopefully stay locked up in a house for another 50 years. Or your area just disappears in another wildfire. At any rate, we don't really have 100 years to get things under control. Canada currently plants some 137 million trees a year for reforestation, and there's an official commitment to plant 2 billion trees by 2029. But, using trees is a slow process.

There's also the whole carbon capture industry, another way of locking up carbon, but supposedly faster and longer term. In that process, CO2 is captured from the emissions of a polluter and then injected into deep (and hopefully stable) rock formations. Faster, and expensive, the technology is still being developed and tested,

Speaking of time, or lack of it, there is a lot of 'net zero by 2050' talk in the news. Net zero refers to a balance between greenhouses being emitted and those being removed. The 2050 target was set in 2015 by the UN, and agreed to by many countries, including Canada. Will we meet that goal? According to a UN assessment done last year of submitted national action plans, in 2030, the world will be at 10% more greenhouse gas emissions than the 2010 level. We're heading up, not down.

The problem with not reaching that target until 2050 is all the emissions spewed out in the meantime. It's as if your doctor says your weight gain is dangerous, you need to balance your calories in versus those burned. So you promise a balance in 5 years, and you keep reducing the gap gradually and you do reach that balance point. But by then you've gained another 30 pounds.

Luckily, there's also a target weight, or for global warming, a target temperature. In 2015 we picked a limit of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It was a target solidly backed by science and seemed achievable at the time. Unfortunately, we're already almost at 1.5 now. And the same assessment predicts that to not go over 1.5, by 2030 we'd need to be 45% lower than the 2010 level.

Are we in trouble? The new technologies do look promising, both to reduce emissions and capture any we miss, but I think our assumption is that science will save us, we will invent even better solutions that will somehow enable us to catch up.

I don't think enough people take this seriously enough. The Human Brain podcast had an interesting episode at about setting up our future selves for success, how we tend to view the impacts of future activities as lessened since they will affect a slightly detached 'other', that we have a bit less empathy for. And we assume that even though we don't want to suffer any privations of cutbacks right now to combat this climate disaster, the future us will be OK with that.

I fear we will need more climate change disasters to get our attention, to show the economic and human cost of NOT getting this under control. More melting glaciers and polar caps, rising sea levels, extreme storms, be they hurricanes, tornadoes, or blizzards, out of control wildfires, crop failures, starvation, and epidemics.

Hopefully, we can react quickly enough.