Monday, May 07, 2007

Carbon Offsetting - Our Salvation

Not long ago [I don’t know if your memory stretches back this far] the Roman Catholic Church sold small items of salvation to the people of Europe. The idea was that if someone misbehaved he/she had the option of saving themselves from future punishment by buying a certificate called an Indulgence. After paying for this piece of paper the sinner’s slate was wiped clean and all would be well. We know this is correct because the Pope himself said so and his name was affixed to the aforementioned piece of paper. If a person sinned again all he had to do was buy another Indulgence. No one had to change their ways of behaviour; you could go on sinning to your hearts content so long as you kept up with the payments for your Indulgences; everyone [who mattered] was saved from Hell, the Pope made lots of money, St Peter’s Basilica was built with the proceeds and everyone [that mattered] was happy.
At present we are faced with something of a problem, global warming in case your memory cell needs stirring, and we must solve this or be faced with real purgatory. In response to this the gurus/whizz-kids/smart-arses who run our world have come up with a similar idea. The idea of carbon-offsetting is that if you deposit a bucketload of carbon into the atmosphere you then counterbalance that by paying someone else to do something which is more eco-friendly and useful to the planet, e.g. plant some trees. The consultants have worked out how much carbon each car trip is worth, how much pollution an air journey costs etc, what needs to be done to counter the pollution and how much we need to pay for each instance of misbehaviour. In effect we can continue behaving in much the same way as we do now, the ecology of the planet will be kept safe, the experts make their money, the whinging greenies are kept quiet and everyone is happy. Sounds like a good idea to me, so let’s take a closer look at it.
First of all, can I ask a few questions . . .
How long does it take the earth to produce a barrel of crude oil?
How long does it take to extract, transport & refine crude oil?
How long does it take to burn a few gallons of petrol?
How long does it take for trees to absorb the carbon dioxide produced in these processes?
. . and can I suggest a few nominal answers . .
Millions of years
A few weeks.
A few hours
Maybe 50 years.
The first thing that occurs to me as I view these answers [I accept that they are not bang-on for accuracy but they are close enough] is that there are huge differences in the timescales involved. For offsetting purposes the difference between the first and second answer needn’t concern us – although we should think hard about it from a resources conservation point of view – but the difference between the third and last cannot be ignored. Pollution takes only hours, or even minutes to produce, but absorption of polluting gasses takes years – here we have two incompatible timescales; we are doing damage on one scale [at high speed] but trying to cure the effects on a different scale altogether [at very low speed]. If the timescales were arranged the other way around then the difference would be to our advantage but as they stand it is like trying to extinguish a bush fire by peeing on it. In the 50 years which it will take a tree to grow isn’t it possible, or even probable, that many other instances of pollution will occur? So we will need ever more forests of trees to counterbalance our pollution? Have we enough space on earth for such forests? I’ll assume there is sufficient IQ between your ears to work out a logical answer.
Can we be sure that the trees that are planted on our behalf to offset pollution are ‘extras’ and not trees that would be planted anyway? Isn’t it possible that a carbon-offsetting company could buy shares in a forestry management company so the person who pays for a tree is different but the quantities of timber remain unchanged? Maybe.
But let’s be charitable towards the experts and a little more positive in our outlook. Shall we assume, for a moment, that trees really will absorb all the toxic gases we put into the atmosphere. Can we be sure that those trees will mature and survive for their full life? Are we sure they will not die or be felled before doing their job? Some casualties are inevitable so it is highly probable the consultants have built in a safety margin to their calculations and all should be well. And what happens to the trees when they die, as one day they must? However the wood is used, whether it is for making furniture, building huts or for firewood, eventually it will decompose or disintegrate and when that happens all the carbon absorbed by the tree is released back into the ecological system.


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