Trees perform an environmental miracle, absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air during photosynthesis, releasing the oxygen that we breathe and storing the carbon harmlessly in their roots, …
Trees perform an environmental miracle, absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air during photosynthesis, releasing the oxygen that we breathe and storing the carbon harmlessly in their roots, branches and trunks. The carbon is released as trees decompose or are burned for fuel—or cleared after a forest fire. As we work to avert the worst impacts of climate change, planting trees, conserving forested lands and soils, and harvesting mature wood to make building materials that sequester carbon have all emerged as important mitigation strategies. And so, in the way of human nature, carbon offsets relating to forests are being monetized in a lucrative and complex commodities market with ample opportunities for abuse.
The idea of cap-and-trade originated in the 1980s as an alternative to government regulation that would create a market mechanism to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants and reduce acid rain. The emissions were fairly easy to measure, and accountability was achieved by requiring that a device be installed on every power plant. The core idea was to assign a cost to emissions and gradually make it more and more expensive to pollute. It was effective: emissions dropped by three million tons in the law’s first year. So cap-and-trade looked like an excellent way to exploit human nature, in the form of cost avoidance and resistance to government regulation, to achieve desirable climate goals. But as with so many other things, it only works if the methodology is scrupulously accurate and honest.
For example, Russia is home to the world’s largest forest and about 20 percent of the earth’s total trees, and those trees take up vast amounts of CO2, helping slow the pace of global warming. A recent study claims that Russia’s huge Siberian forests absorb as much as 47 percent more carbon each year than previously thought. But Russia is also the fourth largest global emitter of CO2, largely from its energy sector, and has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) as a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement. According to a recent article in Yale 360, the Russian government is looking to achieve its GHG reduction commitments not by reducing industrial emissions but by using the carbon offsets provided by the Siberian forests. While the actual total amount of carbon capture by Siberian forests is still under debate and also fluctuates from year to year, the bigger problem according to climate researchers is that this absorption of CO2 by forest carbon sinks is already accounted for in most global climate models. Counting it now as a new CO2 offset games the system and will be used to justify continued or even increased emissions from fossil fuel and energy generation. Russia has already announced plans to monetize the offset by selling carbon credits to corporations eager to show their own CO2 reductions, a bit of creative accounting that opens the door to “double crediting” the amount of carbon sequestered in Siberian forests.
This past April, ProPublica reported on problems emerging in California’s forest offset program run by the Air Resources Board. CarbonPlan, a non-profit based in San Francisco, analyzed the state’s method for calculating carbon sequestration and found that the program may have significantly overestimated the climate value of the resulting carbon credits, each representing a metric ton of carbon, which forest owners can sell to polluters like oil and gas corporations. CarbonPlan believes the program may have resulted in 20 to 39 million credits that don’t actually represent carbon savings, equaling the annual emissions of 8.5 million cars. Carbon Plan dubbed them “ghost credits”– a boon for the polluting industries that claim the net reduction while doing nothing to actually address climate change. Whether those mistakes are the natural growing pains of a complex carbon methodology or intentional efforts to game the system, the result is the same: a potentially catastrophic miscalculation.
Climate scientists agree there’s no way we can plant enough trees to offset the climate damage from the life cycle of fossil fuels. The magic bullet doesn’t exist, and we need to be vigilant about market-based strategies because we seem to get ever-more skilled at rigging the system. To the extent that cap and trade programs can protect old-growth trees, they can be helpful in addressing climate change as long as they are held rigorously accountable. But let’s not fool ourselves—we still have to tackle the difficult stuff.