The Intersection

Are carbon sequestration initiatives providing incentives that decrease land productivity and limit the habitat of endangered species?

i-481325fdb063f3516ecd608687fb196a-fire.JPGWe spend a lot of time here discussing wind and water, but I’d like to turn your attention to another force of nature.. FIRE! When I was in South Africa earlier this month, it struck me that carbon sequestration initiatives may actually be creating some unexpected arguably perverse externalities that are potentially troublesome. Maybe. I admit I’m no expert, but hear me out..

In many parts of the world, fires are set regularly to simulate the natural burning process and enhance productivity of an area in a similar way that pruning a tree does. New growth is quick and efficient because energy and nutrients are invested in small healthy shoots. Now I bet some are wondering, ‘if this is such a natural and critical process, what happened before humans started going about setting fires all over the place?’ Fair question and yes, plants and animals were doing okay on their own. But keep in mind, this was well before we encroached on habitat and resources in many additional compounding ways.

i-9be1843f7230f10093a57556c6e64673-Cheetah4.jpgIt may sound counter-intuitive, but fire is also essential for the survival of many animals living in Africa’s savannas that need open areas to hunt like everyone’s favorite car commercial star, the cheetah. It suppresses the growth of trees which would lead to uninhabitable thicket where cuddly big cats can’t chase impala and Subarus. That’s a problem.

Finally, it also gets rid of dead biomass. Frequent planned fires are low in intensity sweep through areas without much damage to living plants. Sans regular burning, too much dead biomass collects so lightening ignites fires of higher intensity which kill living plants and animals.

Enter carbon sequestration initiatives that encourage more forest in order to store the CO2 that’s warming our planet. For the most part, they’re a great idea. And yet.. all of a sudden, biomass present has monetary value. Thus, now some wildlife managers have become reluctant to burn their savanna properties because they literally feel their money goes up in flames. So tell me, is this cause for concern or a pesky externality of little consequence?


  1. #1 Linda
    July 30, 2007

    Unfortunately, money always seems to dictate and be the bottom line of most things. While carbon sequestration is important, this sounds like an unfortunate compromise I hadn’t considered. There is a lot of gray area with this, but I still support these initiatives.

  2. #2 Artie
    July 30, 2007

    The CO2 in the trees is but a small piece of the puzzle. The oceans hold enormous amounts CO2 and I have been advised that they are getting full and, therefore, cannot
    hold much more. If they are no longer able to soak up the CO2 we are pouring into the atmosphere, limiting the build up in the air, then the stuff we continue to produce will remail in the atmosphere for us to breathe. Where will the traders go to swap there CO2 credits when the bank is no longer taking their deposits?

  3. #3 MattXIV
    July 30, 2007

    I don’t think this is an externality so much as an opportunity cost of pursuing different land management objectives since the benefits of burning are concentrated in the land that the fire occurs on. If sequestration is supplied at suboptimal levels due to it being a positive externality of certain land management approaches, we’d expect other land management approaches to decrease on the margin if the externality is internalized through subsidizing sequestration.

  4. #4 Nick (Matzke)
    July 30, 2007

    Over the long term, it’s fairly fictional to say that fire suppression on a savanna will increase the carbon sequestration of the land. The first rule of wildfires is that everyplace with vegetation burns sooner or later. Drought plus lightning strikes will do it eventually if humans don’t. Swamps burn. Rainforests burn. Taiga burns. Fire in a rainforest may be a once per 500 years event, but it burns sooner or later.

    You can temporarily suppress fires on a savanna and get a forest, but sooner or later it will burn, only it will burn catastrophically and uncontrollably when it goes. In a hot, dry savanna environment this will occur with a frequency of <100 years I bet.

    So, an intelligent carbon sequestration carbon would take this into account and pay accordingly, and this would probably remove the incentives to e.g. control grassland fires. Probably the best places to put carbon sequestration money are (a) preserving rainforests where there is already a big long-term carbon pool that we don't want to go up in smoke and (b) funding renewable secondary forestry where the carbon (timber) is removed regularly and fairly permanently locked up e.g. in houses. This would reduce demand for wood from virgin forests also, so it's all good...

  5. #5 Cliff
    July 30, 2007

    To me this looks like one of many devil’s bargains we’re going to be forced to make. Hopefully, all of our practices will become aligned with natural processes. Unfortunately, we haven’t got much wiggle room left for ideal *intentional* solutions.

    Meanwhile, we’ve got tremendous areas of un-intentional burnoff happening all over the planet. What’s the tradeoff on that?

  6. #6 Hank Roberts
    July 31, 2007

    In that sane parallel universe next door, prescribed fires _are_ part of carbon sequestration practice. As originated by the first occupants of North America, regular low intensity fires burn through without getting hot enough long enough to burn all the way down to mineral soil, and burn often enough that brush doesn’t grow up and litter pile up near the big trees — so there isn’t enough fuel to kill the cambium under the bark.

    Sigurd Olsen wrote somewhere that when the first whites arrived, oblivious to the fact that they were visiting a well maintained garden/park, they thought this was a wilderness.

    And there were six or seven trees per acre, a continuous canopy overhead, and a squirrel could go from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast without ever touching the ground.

    In this universe, fear of smoke deters planning for prescribed fire, so we getinstead fewer, bigger, hotter, longer-lasting fires, big trees get badly wounded (“cat’s mouth” injuries usually on the uphill side where the litter was deeper).

  7. #7 John the Gnerphk
    July 31, 2007

    I’d like to suggest that money is not at fault here.

    Money is a tool for getting people to do things you want them to – can your food, chlorinate your water, put your garbage into a landfill, that sort of thing. And it can be used for good purposes.

    And so I propose that we as consumers, voters, and above all as money production machines, use our purchasing power wisely. If we want things done a certain way, we need to communicate that desire in the only language some people (and governments and corporations) understand. And that is money.

    We can withhold our purchasing dollars from eco-unfriendly companies. We can choose to recycle. We can buy land that we feel is being misused. And, of course, we can support our local used booksellers, the premier recyclers and the unsung heroes.

    (OK, so that was a bit excessive. But the point is still a good one.)
    -J the G

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