Category Archives: trees

Greening the forestry industry

Photo credit: “Waiting to be processed,” Flickr/Digging For Fire

Avrim Lazar, the head of the Forest Products Association of Canada, visited the Citizen‘s editorial board yesterday, and the recording of the 45-minute session is in MP3 format here.

His central message is that the Canadian wood, pulp and paper industry has had the stuff knocking out of it the last little bit, and things are going to get worse. Their solution: go green, and advertise that worldwide. They’re aiming for carbon-neutrality across the industry by 2015. It’s not that Canada’s forest-industry CEOs are nice guys, Lazar says in almost so many words, it’s that that’s where the money is.

He also makes the interesting argument that government regulations on tree-cutting on public land, especially in Quebec, have kept the industry inefficient. Cutting rights are linked to the locations of mills, Lazar told us, so that if a company wanted to close an old, small, inefficient mill and consolidate, the government would say OK, fine, but you’ll never be able to cut trees in the surrounding forest again. That prevented economies of scale, he says, and also delayed by decades the incorporation of new, more efficient and less-polluting equipment.

Having not done it the easy, natural way, Lazar says, the industry is now shaking out the hard way.

It’d all be so much puffery if Lazar hadn’t moved to the association from 25 years in government, including being the assistant deputy minister for policy in the federal environment department when the Kyoto Accord was negotiated, and a spell as Environment Canada’s director-general on the biodiversity file.

If you’re interested in the intersection of environmentalism and business, I’d say it’s a must-listen.

Better to cut emissions than to offset

Ron Dembo of Zerofootprint posts engagingly at TreeHugger on, well, the value of trees:

The role of trees is essential to the health of the planet’s ecosystems, while their benefits so multifarious that we really cannot have enough of them. Everyone knows of the gifts of the trees in their neighbourhoods, whether it is the beauty and shade they offer, the protection from wind or flood, their flowers and fruit, their habitat for wildlife, their wood, their sap, or the playgrounds they provide for children.

Cities are beginning to realise that their trees have a quantifiable value. New York’s parks department, for example, has concluded that its street trees provided an annual benefit of about $122m, or $5.60 in benefits for every dollar spent, through their ability to combat pollution, reduce noise, prevent flash floods, add value real estate, and so on.

With one fifth of global emissions down to deforestation, we need to do everything we can to protect existing forests, while given the benefits of trees over and above their carbon sequestration, we need to plant as many as possible.

Everything about this is true and (re)forestation is extremely useful and important as both an environmental and an economic move on its own merits. But Dembo is ostensibly writing about using trees as carbon offsets, and doesn’t quite answer his own questions: “Why offset with trees when fossil fuels are to blame? … Shouldn’t we focus on renewable energy projects that can replace the use of fossil fuel?”

And the answer is that as far as reducing atmospheric carbon levels is concerned, we actually should focus on (1) using less energy, (2) getting energy from renewable sources, (3) reducing the carbon we emit from burning fossil fuels, and (4) trying to take carbon out of the atmosphere — in that order.

Once we’ve squeezed enough benefits out of one item on the list that we’re seeing diminishing returns, then we can move on to the next. Compare it to trying to put out a fire; the first thing you do is stop throwing gasoline on it, before you start dousing it with water.

Dembo also handwaves away the very significant practical problems we currently have with growing trees as carbon offsets, namely that it’s hard to be sure just how much carbon they’re fixing out of the atmosphere, hard to protect trees from being cut down or dying natural deaths later, and hard to be sure that any particular company is actually planting and managing the trees it says it is.

Again: reforestation is very, very good and worth pursuing, but getting it mixed up with the carbon-offset business means confusing both goals.

A funny way to market a movement

Excerpts from two posts at ordinarily superb sources of green news. First, Grist Mill (continuing the ongoing discussion of what makes a good carbon offset):

For example, I own several acres of forestland. I can turn that land over to a conservation trust and they will manage it, in theory, forever. The idea behind conservation trusts is to permanently prevent development. The contract you sign can allow some things to happen on that land. For example, you can allow it to be logged. You can also have some structures on it, or even live on it. You just can’t do anything else to the land not stipulated in the original contract. The conservation trust idea is really taking off and has preserved millions of acres of land. I purchased my land from an old logging baron family. The other parcels were sold to Joe Sixpacks who plan to park their retirement double-wides on them when electric power becomes available, assuming their obesity and drinking does not get them first. Had carbon offsets and conservation trusts existed at the time, that timber family might have put all that recently logged forestland into trusts instead of selling it to the local rednecks.

The post is by Seattle resident Russ Finley, writing as “biodiversivist.”

Second, Celsias’s Craig Mackintosh on organic farming:

The factories and chemical companies that made huge profits from dealing death to the earth’s human inhabitants during wartime – especially World War II – quickly found a new direction for their efforts when killing people quickly was no longer acceptable. They began to use their chemicals to kill us slowly instead.

But, we’re starting to fight back, and the truth is getting out. The agribusiness justifications for their war on the earth is beginning to be seen for what it really is – pure propaganda.

Here’s the news release on a University of Michigan study that Mackintosh is working from. It sounds pretty interesting, though not interesting enough to pay $20 to a journal just to see whether it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

Now look. These are the people that have to be won over if this thing is going to work. The factories and the chemical companies can maybe be written off, but only if the obese rednecks can be convinced to stop buying the stuff they sell. Otherwise, it’s going to have to be an alliance.

Mackintosh, in particular, ought to be ashamed of that tripe. Can anyone seriously believe that chemical companies so enjoyed killing people during the Second World War that they got into the fertilizer business so they could keep doing it? That fighting “a war against our world” is really what anybody outside of a James Bond movie gets up to do in the morning? What blithering nonsense is that?

Errors, yes. Concealing of unpleasant and unexpected side-effects and byproducts, sure. Corporate malfeasance, as much as anywhere else, no doubt. But a deliberate effort to kill for its own sake?

Honest to God. People who are serious about environmentalism cannot crap on other human beings this way and expect to be taken seriously.

Weak trees, first in what’s bound to be a series

I’ve never understood opposition to carbon offsets on moral grounds — that “being green” is virtue that has to be earned and can’t be bought. The usual comparison is to papal indulgences, the practice of buying forgiveness for your sins whose rampant abuse in the Roman Catholic Church partly caused Martin Luther to leave it.

The difference is that God’s forgiveness wasn’t the Church’s to sell. If you can actually pay for a project that actually does remove carbon from the atmosphere, a carbon offset isn’t cheating. It might not be morally satisfying, in that it’s an option available to the rich that isn’t available to the poor, but, well, lots of things are available to the rich that aren’t available to the poor and we don’t as a rule say the rich can’t have them.

The point isn’t that being green is virtuous in itself, but that being grey-brown is harmful — and if you can structure your affairs so as to be carbon-neutral or carbon-negative, as far as I’m concerned you go right on ahead.

The trick, however, is that the people selling you your offsets have to have genuine offsets to sell. I’ve written here about a couple of schemes that strike me as unusually sketchy, but doubtless there are dozens or hundreds more. There’s no international verification standard, and usually a retail-level trafficker in offsets is promising to do something in a far-off land that you can’t go see yourself. Typically, he or she is promising to plant trees, on the theory that as they grow, they’ll “fix” carbon from the air in their physical structures.

This is fine as far as it goes, but Grist Mill has been doing some serious practicality checks on the subject and finds the actual practice of tree-planting to create carbon offsets seriously wanting:

The biggest one is timing. A carbon offset represents not just a specific amount of greenhouse gas reduction, but also a specific period in which the reduction takes place. One of the most basic principles of offset quality is that, other things being equal, you want to sponsor reductions that are taking place now, not at some far-off point in the future.

Unfortunately, trees grow rather slowly. And particularly when they’re small, they don’t sequester much carbon. The small print on tree-planting offsets typically indicate a 40-year maturity. If you buy a tree-based offset today, you’re sponsoring a reduction that won’t be complete until 2047, by which time we’ll either be living in hurricane-proof seaside bunkers in the Rockies or flying around in hydrogen-fueled jet cars.

Plus trees have a way of dying on you, of collapsing and rotting out or of burning, either of which puts that carbon right back in the atmosphere with the stuff you put out and were trying to offset.

We desperately need some standards for measuring and monitoring tree-based offsetting projects, and I wouldn’t take seriously anyone’s claim to have offset his or her own carbon emissions using such projects until we’ve got a licensing regime in place.

Paper offsets

Here’s an example of environmentalism-as-show-offy activity: this outfit called Eco-Libris will sell you paper offsets for the books you buy. For $1, they’ll arrange to have someone plant a tree on your behalf; they suggest buying a tree for each book you own.

They sent me this flattering e-mail asking me to feature them on my site, and I thought I’d oblige.

Reading a lot is part of my job. I have a lot of books, and I’ve divested myself of plenty more when I’ve moved house a couple of times in the last five years. But even so, all told, I’d guesstimate I’ve taken down maybe 10 trees in my entire book-reading career. Call it 20, just to be on the safe side. (Newspapers are a different story, although newsprint is highly recyclable and anyway newspaper offsets aren’t what Eco-Libris is selling.) There’s no way you make a profit selling $20 worth of offsets to somebody like me, though — you have to take it up a notch, and invite people to buy a $1 whole-tree offset for every single book they buy, which would take my paper bill into the thousands of dollars.

How do you disengage the cost of paper offsets from the amount of paper prospective customers actually own? By offering something a bit different from a promise to replace the paper consumed by one book. To buy a whole tree to balance off the paper in one book, I need it to make me feel green, to believe I’m doing something super-good for the planet, and it’s even better if you give me a way to show off that I’m doing so.

That opportunity to show off comes in the form of a sticker. From Eco-Libris’s Blogspot blog:

As the ex-libris was an elegant way to show the identity of the book owner and her (or his) appreciation of the book, we hope to see Eco-Libris stickers become the new way book owners present their identity, saying: hey, i love this book, but i also care about the environment. i am trying to live more sustainably. That’s who i am!

Eco-Libris appears to me to be mostly a marketing organization: their key function is to convince you that books are environmentally harmful and that you need to do something about it. You give them money, they give some of the money to actual tree-planters, and you get mailed a sticker to put in a book or wear on your face or otherwise place wherever you think it’ll do the most good:

The Eco-Libris sticker, which is made from recycled paper, is designed for you to put on the cover of the books you balance out, to show your commitment to sustainability and responsible use of natural resources. We hope you show off these books and inspire your family, friends and colleagues to take responsibility for their books as well.

Presumably by making a secure online purchase from Eco-Libris’s extremely convenient website.

For an extra warm green feeling, Eco-Libris’s “planting partners” work in deforested parts of Africa and Central America. Mind you, there most of the tree-cutting is to clear land for agriculture — not particularly to feed the North American and European publishing industry’s hunger for wood pulp. Albeit some of the stuff does end up on the market, but that’s not why the trees get cut down.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s astonishingly detailed statistics database reveals that Latin America and the Caribbean, where two of Eco-Libris’s three planting partners work, exported about 7.7 million tonnes of pulp for paper in 2005 (having produced about 17 million tonnes). Meanwhile, Canada produced about 25 million tonnes and the United States 53 million tonnes, most of it for domestic consumption. If we’re really trying to offset the paper used in books, it’s not Malawi and Guatemala where the work needs to get done.

“There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you can enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it,” the company quotes Bertrand Russell in one of many loosely book-related lines across the tops of the pages on its website. Boasting is definitely key here, for all concerned.

In the end, I’m certainly not saying not to buy in. More trees in deforested placed? Good thing. Stickers advertising care for the environment? Can’t really be bad. But for my taste and wallet, there’s too much room between the intrinsic value of what Eco-Libris sells and the price it’s asking.