The distraction of carbon offsets

Redwood comment
Published:  31 August, 2021

Planting trees still makes up around half of the carbon offset business. The fact that even after the young trees are established, they will need to remain standing somewhere between 50 to 100 years to absorb the levels of CO2 they were planted for means that this is not an easy solution. 

Schemes normally obtain third party verification, although that can be costly.

It would be easy to monetise existing forests, so it is vital to check that the project creates an added benefit that would not otherwise happen. “Additionality”, as this is called, is often overlooked.

The longevity, or permanence, of any plantings needs to be assured. Will there be maintenance to ensure survival through the precarious early years and is there certainty that the trees will not be cut down prematurely? Trees can require between 50 and 100 years to absorb the CO2 they are bought to offset.

A third point of concern is that if a landholder is paid to plant trees, or to not cut down trees, what guarantees that they will not instead cut down another area of trees nearby?

Even with good verification, ensuring all this is not easy. This year, wildfires have destroyed forests all over the world, including a number in the U.S. that were part of offset projects. The Colville Indian Reservation in Washington is one area that has suffered badly where both Microsoft and BP are heavily involved. Their purchases include a “buffer”, whereby an excess of trees are planted to balance up future problems but, given the enormity of the fires, it is not clear yet where things stand. It clearly evidences that, as the climate warms, tree planting has serious risks from drought, fire and disease.

The Eden Project

I am big supporter of the famous Eden Project and the tree planting offsets they offer include a huge programme in Nicaragua. They believe that there is sufficient stability and government buy-in for it to be secure. Many programmes are based in such developing markets where predicting even five or 10 years ahead can be difficult.

I was involved in buying a hide supplier and small tannery in Nicaragua in the mid-1970s and, by 1979, access had been lost because of local politics. It was returned, largely as wasteland, in the 2000s; not a good omen in a country where NGOs are currently being deregistered, opposition parties disqualified for the upcoming election and Ambassadors from many countries withdrawn.

Planting large numbers of trees is nevertheless important and must be supported, but to see it as a leading solution to climate change would be an error. It is clear that the fossil fuel industry, the aviation industry and others are using it as permission to carry on producing CO2, despite the fact that science makes it clear that the energy sector (electricity, heat and transport) is responsible for over 70% of CO2 emissions and it is here that we have to make fast inroads if global warming is to be slowed.

CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere for over 1,000 years

Remember that, unlike methane, CO2 stays in the atmosphere for over 1,000 years. The fossil fuel industry has enjoyed great success in joining with vegan groups in deceptive PR activities to transfer global warming responsibilities from large corporations onto the individual, with arguments that planting trees and eliminating livestock will somehow be enough to “save the planet”.  

The success of such activities has clearly side-tracked the debate and we need to find ways to get the discussion back on the level and based on sound science. Given that so much PR and lobbying has allowed opinions, terminological abuse and distraction tactics using emotion rather than integrity to overwhelm the whole subject, this is proving to be a major battle.

It is critical for the leather industry since it is our raw material, but some meat and dairy products will always be consumed even if quantities should be diminished. For the livestock industry, it is their livelihood, and we must support them to get the truth disseminated.

Mike Redwood

August 31, 2021

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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