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Carbon Offsets: Fool's Gold?


Can we really reverse the warming trend "simply by planting trees?"

The market in carbon offsets grew faster than expected last year, tripling to $30 billion from $10 billion in 2005, the World Bank said recently.

A carbon offset can best be described as "paying a third party for their claim of reducing ("offsetting") greenhouse gas emissions, when one is unable or unwilling to reduce one's own emissions."

According to Dr. Fatih Birol, chief economist of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, China is growing at such a rapid pace that the historic global shift of climate-changing emissions from west to east which was previously predicted for 2009 or 2010 could potentially now happen by November.

The Chinese can magically create new carbon offsets by fudging their production forecasts. They then turn around and sell those "phantom" offsets to Western companies feeling guilty about their own emissions. It obviously has no net effect on levels of pollutants in the atmosphere, but it's cheap PR for manufacturers outside Asia, while Chinese manufacturers get huge infusions of cash to fund new investments.

Doesn't make much sense, does it?

Pedestrians in Beijing

Last week, Delta Air Lines announced something it thinks makes a lot of sense. It plans to be first U.S. airline to offer customers the option of purchasing carbon offsets each time they fly, beginning June 1. The offsets will add an extra $5.50 to domestic roundtrip fares and $11 for international roundtrips, with the money going to The Conservation Fund, which plants trees to offset carbon emissions.

The Conservation Fund says it has "launched a new program called Carbon Zero that makes it easy and affordable for individuals, corporations or even entire communities to Go Zero by measuring and then offsetting their carbon emissions - simply by planting trees."

Can we really reverse the warming trend "simply by planting trees?"

Well, um, gosh, uh, gee, er...not exactly.

In a study, scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Carnegie Institution and Université Montpellier II found that global forests actually produce a net warming of the planet.

The research shows that tropical forests are beneficial because they take up carbon and increase cloudiness, which in turn helps cool the planet.

However, there is little or no benefit when trees are planted in temperate regions, and that by the year 2100, forests in mid and high latitudes could make some places up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than would have occurred if the forests did not exist.

"Planting more trees in high latitudes could be counterproductive from a climate perspective," Govindasamy Bala, lead author of the research, said.

Ken Caldeira, a co-author of the study from the Carnegie Institution, said, "To prevent climate change, we must focus on effective strategies and not just 'feel-good' strategies."

Granted, offsets are nothing new; they've been around for centuries. In 1517, Pope Leo X offered "indulgences" for those who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Just a few sesterces, quinarces, or denarces would wipe your Godly slate clean, no matter what your crimes. And, until the Conscription Act of February 24, 1864, U.S. Army draftees could choose between hiring a substitute or paying the government $300 to avoid having to serve.

Alright, enough about offsets. What about simply investigating other fuels? That's what Richard Branson is doing, having pledged to commit all profits from his transportation businesses over 10 years to combat global warming-to the tune of $3 billion.

"We are going to start building cellulosic ethanol plants," Branson announced at last September's Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York City. "We use around 700 million gallons of fuel a year between the four airlines," he continued. "I hope that over the next five to six years we can replace some or all of that" with plant-based ethanol.

George Monbiot, a columnist for The Guardian and a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University points out that Bob Saynor, Ausilio Bauen, and Matthew Leach, researchers at Imperial College in London, looked into the potential for using ethanol as an aviation fuel. It has a flashpoint of 12°C, which "would present major safety dangers." It also emits acetaldehyde at low power settings, "bringing localized health problems around airports, especially for ground support staff." For these reasons, ethanol is "unsuitable as a jet fuel."

And biodiesel? Monbiot explains that biodiesel "has a 'cloud point' much higher than kerosene, which is currently used for jet fuel. At low temperatures, oils go cloudy, and at a couple of degrees beyond that point they form a gel. This can block an engine's fuel filters, fuel lines and plugs."

Be sure to book a seat near the emergency exit.

Okay, so ethanol and biodiesel won't work for Branson. There's always hydrogen. It simply turns into harmless water vapor, doesn't it?

Monbiot says that because it contains much less energy per volume than kerosene, a hydrogen-powered plane wouldn't have room for any passengers. What about building a bigger one? Slight problem-a larger airframe means more drag, forcing the aircraft to fly in the stratosphere.


A 2002 report titled "The Environmental Effects of Civil Aircraft in Flight" by The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, explains that water vapor produced by burning hydrogen in the stratosphere causes a total global warming impact thirteen times that of ordinary planes burning kerosene.

All the talk and promises and press releases about how much everyone's doing to make the world a better place for our grandchildren is nice and warm and fuzzy. But, when you take a look at the facts, instead of feeling "green" for spending that extra $5.50 on your Delta flight to Miami, you just feel, well, sorta...silly.

It's almost akin to purchasing racism offsets for saying nasty things about others: go ahead, be as bigoted as you like - that offset you bought means someone halfway across the world will be really nice to minorities for the day. Want to have unprotected sex? Just get your hands on a lovemaking offset first.

Somewhere else, another guy'll be using a condom for you.
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