Pseudo Science Update

Yesterday's post on tree offsets started a good conversation with Adam and Tom Arnold at Terrapass. Apparently Adam's post was part of an ongoing, and now that I've read the others I find we're on the same page. In particular, take a read through Adam's Rules of the road for carbon offsets: the trouble with trees. It's a more complete treatment of the topic than I provided yesterday. Bottom line is still the same: if you're buying offsets, know where they're coming from. It's up to you, but I'd stay away from the trees.

By the way, I've updated the post to try to clear up some of the confusion I was causing. Hopefully it reads a bit better now. I also updated the title, which was problematic:

Posted by Adam Stein on September 08, 2007 at 07:44 PM EDT #

I see a surprising lack of knowledge of forestry in many of the various comments and articles referenced. I would also add some of the parties here have vested interests in certain conclusions.

Adam says "Trees have an unfortunate habit of dying or being cut down." True. But the latter occurs for only two reasons. To burn as fuel (and release carbon, a rare use of trees in the developed world), or to be processed into wood products, which is near-permanent sequestration. In fact, one way to maximize sequestration via trees is to cut down mature trees which have reached diminishing returns of sequestration, and replanting with new trees. This helps avoid the dying tree problem. Of course it also means proper forest management to minimize the risk of fire, and maximize the growth potential of trees.

Also, comments regarding the measurability of tree's carbon sequestion are incorrect. The chemical makeup of wood cellulose of various species is known, and a tree's mass can be accurately estimated. FYI, my long-dead grandfather had to estimate the number of matchsticks which could be made from a mature tree by visual observation as part of the Forestry degree he received 80 odd years ago from Penn State. No doubt the science is more sophisticated now. Today, a forester can cruise (visually inspect) a stand of timber and estimate a fair market price based on pulp (paper), chip (composite), or saw timber (2x4s and the like). From this, we know how much wood is in the trees. From biochemistry, we know how much carbon is in the wood. This is science (measurable, provable, and repeatable), not pseudo science.

Regarding the Caldeira study regarding trees in non-tropical regions. If true, then it would follow that clear cutting everything north of 23.5 degrees would actually benefit the earth. That would be an interesting an offsetting strategy. It would certainly meet the immediacy requirement. On a serious note, it means the choice between tropical forests and biofuel farmlands in Brazil needs to be studied more closely.

But Joseph Romm's comment: "Imagine planting 1,000 acres of trees in Brazil, where the full extent of annual deforestation is not known precisely. How do we know that an extra 1000 acres won't be chopped down somewhere else in the country?" fails the logic test. We don't know if 1000 acres won't be chopped down elsewhere. But we do know the net is 1000 acres more than whatever the alternative is. The same could be said of an alternative energy offset. We do not if offsetting our use will be destroyed by excessive energy use somewhere else. This lack of logic cause Romm to lose credibility. Let me explain mathematically: x + 1000 > x (Thanks to Mr Crews, my 8th grade algebra teacher for that one!). Romm's explanation is an amazingly poor argument for a scientist to make.

I buy the time argument in offsets. But I don't buy the forestry misinformation of Adam and Joseph. And I'll trust an 8th grader over Dr. Romm when it comes to math.

Posted by Mark on September 09, 2007 at 05:38 PM EDT #

I agree with your comment about Joseph Romm's logic with Brazilian trees.

Re: forestry management, based on my reading I agree that it can work. However, it takes money to manage a forest, and if that money isn't allocated or isn't put to good use, it won't work. The EPA's analysis shows you get very little additional sequestration at today's carbon prices (see the chart in this post:

Posted by David Douglas on September 10, 2007 at 12:40 AM EDT #

Hi Mark,

You write: "I would also add some of the parties here have vested interests in certain conclusions."

I'm curious what you mean by this. I can't think of a single critic of tree-planting projects for whom this is true. It's certainly not true of TerraPass. Our current business model could happily accommodate tree-planting projects, and consumers are quite fond of these projects, so in fact it is contrary to our interests to preclude them. Joseph Romm certainly has no vested interest in knocking tree-planting projects. I think it's fair to say that most people working in the carbon world would prefer to see as many high-quality projects as possible. The reason they criticize tree-planting projects is because these projects have all sorts of problems.

Regarding your specific points:

Permanence is a bigger issue than you acknowledge. It's fine to say that proper forest management can address the problem, but you only get to sell an offset once. If you sell an offset for $4 in 2007, are you really confident that your $4 is going to ensure proper forest management in 2047? Also, this issue isn't just theoretical. There are well-known instances of tree-planting projects resulting in dead groves of trees. I do, as it happens, feel that this issue is probably addressable, but it's certainly not a solved problem.

Measurement is also a bigger issue than you allow. Wood is not the only carbon impact of a tree. A lot of carbon is sequestered in soil, and it's possible for tree-planting projects to have a negative impact on soil sequestration.

I haven't read Romm's article on Brazilian forests, but the issue he raises -- which is called "leakage" -- is quite real. I admit that the framing of it in the quote you provide is confusing and not very persuasive, but Romm's argument does make sense if you consider governmental policy or the choices of individual farmers. It's very easy, for example, for a state government in Brazil to "protect" a patch of rainforest by simply designating another patch for development. There is no net benefit to the environment in such a scenario.

It's also important to note that avoided deforestation projects are not the same as tree-planting projects. My strong hope is that a policy framework can be worked out that brings avoided deforestation projects firmly into the offsetting fold, because deforestation is a massive environmental problem.



Posted by Adam Stein on September 10, 2007 at 04:02 AM EDT #

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