Effect Measure

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.


  1. #1 Dunc
    July 27, 2007

    There is also the very important point that if you’re trying to offset today’s emissions by a mechanism which operates over a number of years or even decades, you need to take the timescales into account. It’s like your accountant telling you that you can easily afford to spend $1000 now by investing $10 in a 100-year plan with a guaranteed final return of $1000. You’d drop him on the spot.

  2. #2 K
    July 27, 2007

    I get it, we pay to assuage our guilt and plant trees which the Forest Service can then later let the lumber companies cut down and make profit off of. How Bushy can one get.

    Good point Dunc regarding the timescale.

  3. #3 Ann
    July 27, 2007

    Not only does it add to the lumber companies profits, but with the hugh fires we are having now, not only are we increasing the emissions, but the lumber companies get that much more lumber to cut. Amazing, living with all the energy development harming the absorption of carbon dioxide, now our forests are going to either be burnt and cut or just plain cut…great options don’t you think. That is just more of President Shrub’s great plans for our country…let’s make the rich richer and kill off the rest.

  4. #4 herman
    July 27, 2007

    The obscene filth we call our free market democracy has no limits in regard to the extinction of human life. Corporate greed, with the cooperation of the US government, insists on the maximization of profits, no matter who dies as a result.
    It is imposibile to stop global warming, without first destroying the capitalist economic system that causes it,
    and developing a socialist economic system to replace it.
    Along with capitalism, in its most savage form, driving global warming to the point of no return with 10 years, we now have a possible declaration of Martial Law by the president of the United States, meaning the military takeover of the US,and the arrival of US fascism. Capitalism and fascism coexisted in Nazi Germany, and can coexist here.
    A law called the Authorization of the Use of Military Force was passed in September 2001. Then the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which denied the president to power to use the military for police functions within the US, was overturned.
    Then the Insurrection Act (10 USC 331-335) on October 26, 2006, was passed to give the president the power to take over the National Guard.
    Next Congress passed a law to provide a subsidiary of Halliburton $385 million to build detention camps to house
    400,000 people in the US, and the Pentagon has a document stating there is a developing insurgency within the US.
    The Patriot Act of 2001 undermined the Bill of Rights.
    If there is another terrorist attack, or a pandemic, within the US, Martial Law may be declared.
    At the same time the CDC, and so called public health experts, keep insisting Bird Flu may cause a pandemic, at a time when 400,000 people in the world become infected with MDR-TB every year. How many people has bird flu killed? The answer is, not very many.
    But if tuberculosis becomes resistant to all antibiotics,
    it could become a pandemic. Tuberculosis that is resistant to all antibiotics is a much greater threat then bird flu.
    It is very difficult the the H5N1 virus to infect humans, even though H2H exists.
    If capitalism is not stopped, global warming will reach the point of no return within 10 years. At that point, all will be lost, including hope.

  5. #5 Patch
    July 27, 2007


    Fire suppression is the larger reason that we are ruining forests. They burn too hot, because there is too much fuel on the forest floor, because it’s never allowed to burn naturally.

    Trees are much more resistant to fire than we give them credit for. They’ve survived centuries of forest fires. But when the fire burns too hot, due to too much fuel on the forest floor, it can do more damage.

    Go back to any forest “destroyed” (if you can call it that) by fire. You will be amazed at the transfirmation. Fires don’t destroy forests…they sometimes give them a “rebirth”. They aren’t all bad. Additionally fires aren’t all “man-made” but controlling them is.

    I am saddend to hear when forest fires destroy personal property and homes. But perhaps we should consider where we build homes?

  6. #6 Coin
    July 27, 2007

    I see a lot of these “carbon neutral” schemes popping up, where people will try to buy back an amount of carbon equal to the amount they think they’re using. Are ANY of these schemes sound sound? It does seem logical to think that there are some ways you could legitimately spend money to reduce carbon levels, but I can’t think what those would be. Meanwhile it doesn’t seem the people buying the carbon credits are doing a lot to ensure that the stuff they’re buying is actually doing anything, so it seems like purchasing of “carbon neutrality” credits these days is way more about flimsy PR than any legitimate effect.

  7. #7 llewelly
    July 28, 2007

    Money spent to deploy solar or wind power can reduce eventual CO2 emissions, provided it replaces fossil fuel power. Money spent to develop more efficient appliances, or electric cars can reduce CO2 emissions also. Nonetheless … carbon offsets are at best an interim solution …

  8. #8 slovenia
    July 28, 2007

    Evidently, if you plant trees anywhere but the tropics they not only don’t contribute to solving global warming but actually may exaccerbate the problem.


  9. #9 Ann
    July 30, 2007

    Patch…I agree with you almost 100% about fires and the aftermath. We had one burn locally about 4 years ago and I truly love the change. I also agree that the cause of most of the fires are because of “Smoky the Bear” and putting out all fires. However, where I live,because of that past practice and the continued drought, we are in a very severe fire season.

    Saddened by fires destroying homes…not me. Everyone has to have their own piece of heaven and then they get upset when nature takes its course. You get what you pay for.

    I guess my big problem is clear cutting thousands of trees that take over thirty or forty years to grow without regard to the environment (loss of wildlife habitat, loss of cover for water protection etc.)

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