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November 15, 2007

The Forest Service and the Carbon Offsets Game

Writing in High Country News, Rick Craig suggests that the US Forest Service's entry into the carbon offsets game is ill-advised. Here's a snip:

Salvaging the Atmosphere: The Forest Service Joins the Carbon Offsets Game, Rick Craig, High Country News, Oct 15: … On July 25, Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell announced the launch of the Carbon Capital Fund, which will sell carbon offsets to fund tree planting on national forests. … The idea sounds logical enough. In fact, the theory that forests can suck up excess carbon and cool the planet helps drive a market that doubled its revenues last year to $110 million. But the Forest Service's entry into the carbon offsets game comes as doubts about tree planting mount. Scientists are skeptical about its benefits, and the honesty of the unregulated market has been questioned in congressional hearings. Worst of all, critics feel, is the tacit permission offsets give buyers to continue their carbon-emitting lifestyles.

Visit the Web site of the National Forest Foundation, the Forest Service's nonprofit arm, and its Carbon Footprint Calculator can tell you how many metric tons of CO2 emissions you are responsible for. If the result leaves you feeling guilty, don't worry. For just $6, the fund lets you offset 1 ton of carbon by supporting tree-planting projects on the national forests. The transaction is based on the theory that forests act as "carbon sinks," soaking up the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

But in temperate forests, the concept has not held up well to scientific analysis. Forests do take carbon out of the atmosphere temporarily, but they don’t remove it from the active carbon pool, because their carbon is released when they rot or burn. Cambridge botanist Oliver Rackham, author of a history of Britain's forests, has said that telling people to plant trees to stop global warming is like telling them to drink more water to keep down rising sea levels. …

For an agency with increasingly stretched budgets, however, selling that commodity makes a difference. … And with the agency's million-acre reforestation backlog, there's no shortage of places for consumers to relieve their carbon guilt. [NFF hypertlink added]

See also:
Privatization by Many Means: Carbon Offsets Edition, Forest Policy …, Aug 27
Carbon Offsets: Modern Day 'Indulgences'?, Ecological Economics, Feb 20

Posted by Dave on November 15, 2007 at 01:33 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: Doug Heiken

There seem to be a lot of people out there who are critical of forest sequestration.

I think part of their motivation is to point out that forest sequestration is not going to allow us to continue fossil emissions as usual, and of course they are absolutely right about that. We have to aggressively limit fossil fuel emissions AND conserve forests.

Another common critique is that forests may someday switch from a net sink to a net source (implying "so why bother saving forests"). However, many people fail to realize that this fact alone should not change our strategy.

There are good reasons to conserve forests to mitigate climate change, whether or not they are net carbon sources or net carbon sinks, BECAUSE even if forests do switch to become a source, forest conservation is nonetheless essential in order to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. "Mitigation" includes not only absolute reductions of atmospheric carbon but any "avoided emissions," such as protecting forests so that as much carbon as posible stays in the forests instead of the atmosphere.

Even dead trees are a large and valuable carbon store. More than two-thirds of all the carbon in North American forests is NOT in living vegetation! This seems to imply that the useful life of "trees" extends to at least twice the lifespan of the old trees. Wood products rarely last this long in our throw away culture.

On another note: The USFS is remarkably silent on the carbon consequences of logging, especially old-growth forest logging. All the FS's carbon-climate attention is on young forests (that would grow anyway) and fire control (which we have very little control of).

Science tells us that we need to stop logging mature and old-growth forests, and when logging outside of old forests we need to extend harvest rotations and retain more live and dead trees when logging.

Check out Oregon Wild report on forests-carbon-climate here:

Doug Heiken | Nov 23, 2007 11:37:13 PM

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