One of the gross abuses that triggered the Reformation was the corrupt practice of Catholic priests of selling “indulgences,” get-out-of-jail free cards for your sins in this world. Since the Bush administration is always willing to learn from history where corruption is the prize, they have come up with a new idea to sell climate change indulgences to a public increasingly worried about how today’s sins will punish their grandchildren. This latest Bush administration proposal for offsetting the build-up of greenhouse gases characteristically (for them) doesn’t operate on the source side — the production of these gases — but on the sink side, ways to increase their natural uptake. Heaven forbid we should interfere with energy consumption. Instead, we should allow people who feel guilty about the extent to which they contribute to the problem as measured by their “carbon footprint assuage some of that guilt by letting them plant trees in a national forest. The trees will “take up” the profligate carbon dioxide expenditure and everyone will be happy and guilt free.
That’s the idea, anyway. Two days ago the Forest Service became the first federal agency to sell forgiveness for environmental sin:
“We came up with the idea because everyone is looking at what they can do in terms of climate change,” said Bill Possiel, president of the National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit partner of the Forest Service. “The money goes to a restricted fund for projects on national forests.”
Trees and forests are “carbon sinks,” Possiel said, because they draw carbon dioxide — the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming — out of the atmosphere and store it for long periods of time.
The Forest Service, an agency within the Agriculture Department, estimates that the 155 forests it oversees absorb 10% to 15% of the nation’s carbon emissions and that planting through the new initiative will increase that amount.
Under the program, individuals can use a “carbon calculator” at http://www.carboncapitalfund.org to figure out the size of their carbon footprint. Then, they can buy offsets at $6 per metric ton of carbon dioxide. An average family of four is responsible for 19 to 30 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, so the offsets would cost $114 to $180.
“People have an opportunity to contribute to the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests not only by countering climate change, but also by replanting forests for the benefit of future generations,” Forest Service chief Gail Kimbell said in announcing the initiative.
There are other programs that allow individuals to purchase carbon offsets, but environmentalists have criticized them for insufficient regulation and lack of proof of the funds’ use. That’s not the case with the Forest Service program, Possiel said.
“We have third-party verification, a company that looks at our calculations but also does on-site verification,” he said. “A lot of programs have verifications through computer models. The important component for us is the ground truth.”
Possiel said that almost all of the money would go to a restricted fund for planting trees, improving native wildlife habitat, and restoring land damaged by wildfires and other natural disasters. A small portion would be spent on the third-party verification. (LA Times)
I’m not against planting trees in national forests but it most certainly isn’t a solution to the greenhouse gas problem, even if it is the Bush administration’s idea that it will take some of the public pressure of them to “do something.” After all, they are encouraging us to do something. Isn’t that enough?
No, not either in quantity or quality. A second story in the Times (LA) illustrates to complexity of just the physical side of the system. This one concerns ground level photochemical oxidant (PCO) air pollution, a.k.a. “ozone” (since ozone makes up 90% of the photochemical oxidants by mass). Many people are confused by the difference between upper level ozone depletion (the “ozone hole”) and ground level ozone. Ozone in the stratosphere is good. It protects us from ultraviolet radiation and is not in our breathing zone. That same ozone at ground level is bad because it damages the cells in our respiratory tract. Ground level ozone is generated by chemical reactions between gases produced by fossil fuel combustion (nitrogen oxides), hydrocarbons (volatile fuels and some natural compounds) and sunlight. Ozone and other highly reactive compounds made by these reactions as gases also produce the tiny respirable aerosols we see as the haze in smog. It turns out that new work shows that PCOs are not only bad for cells in our respiratory tract but they also interfere with carbon dioxide uptake by plants:
When affected by projected high levels of ozone, plants can absorb up to one-third less carbon dioxide than healthy plants, the researchers found.
The finding adds a new component that will have to be factored into climate models used to assess the future effects of global warming, they said.
The study, published online by the journal Nature, was the first to consider the indirect effect of ozone on vegetation.
“It points out a real gap in our knowledge of climate change,” said David Karnosky, a global change scientist at Michigan Technological University who was not associated with the study. (LA Times)
Offsetting your carbon footprint by planting trees while continuing to produce nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon emissions from cars is like stepping on the accelerator and the brakes at the same time. You are wasting your money.
Unless, of course, all you are interested in is getting rid of your guilt. In that case, don’t read this post. Oh, my. It’s too late. I should have put this at the beginning. Oh, well. It’s not like I told you how Harry Potter came out.