As a child in a devout Catholic household I was intrigued by “Indulgences,” a way for sinners to avoid penalties in the afterlife by paying a fee commensurate with their bad deeds. This was years before Heaven went digital, of course, and as a youngster I assumed these bookkeeping adjustments were made in such a way that God didn’t notice the erasure marks in the Eternal Ledger.
When I first heard the phrase “carbon offsets” it reminded me of the practice of Indulgences – if you pay enough cash you can fly your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun, and through some kind of accounting magic, not emit a speck of CO 2. Someone would instantly plant a forest, pump carbon into a deep ocean trench, or build a wind farm for you.
Apparently I’m too cynical at times, because carbon offsets are genuine. But there are limitations. In a July 2021 Denzeen article, Fredrika Klarén, who runs the Sustainability Division at the Chinese electric-car maker Polestar, says “It is impossible to get down to zero [CO 2 emissions] with offsets alone.”
One of the most popular and easily understood ways to offset carbon emissions is to plant trees. If you buy a certain product, the manufacturer will plant X number of trees so you can indulge in your acquisition without guilt. I like the idea of my purchases causing trees to be planted, a job with which I am quite familiar.
However, it turns out that afforestation (the planting of “new” forests) is seldom a good way to sequester carbon. It takes a new seedling about ten years just to break even from the energy it took to have it planted, and even more time to offset the early management of young forest stands. How long before a forest begins to sequester carbon in a meaningful way?
Paul Gambrill, CEO of The Nori Carbon Removal Marketplace told Denzeen that “Planting trees is probably the most difficult potential method from a measurement and verification perspective. Forests need to have a permanence of 100 years to be effective carbon stores.” Wow. It’s going to take a lot of Dannon-yogurt centenarians to manage these offsets properly. This is certainly another strong argument to preserve old-growth forests and to support conservation easements and land trusts as ways of protecting woodlands.
Before too many people jump off the afforestation bandwagon, though, we should keep in mind that there are loads of other good reasons to plant trees. Forests prevent erosion, conserve water, protect fisheries, filter particulate air pollution, transform and neutralize gaseous contaminants, safeguard biodiversity, and provide us with priceless cultural and spiritual benefits. And we can actually help lower the age at which forests become effective at reversing CO 2 concentrations.
Some log homes in Scandinavia date back 600 years or more, yet the average lifespan of wood used in North American construction today is around forty years – then it goes right into a landfill. Shoddy work plays a part in that, to be sure, but the main reason is short-sighted urban and suburban planning.
With few exceptions, demolished homes are splintered using a grapple boom for expediency, and then the whole mess gets trucked to a landfill. Tearing down homes to build high-density housing might be excused on occasion, but all too often, larger single-family units are the result. This practice needs to be curtailed. No one seems to like regulation, yet that’s the only thing that brought about fire-safety standards and cars whose gas tanks don’t blow up, and put an end to child labor and forced unpaid overtime in this country. Sometimes laws are necessary.
If we can find ways to encourage the salvage and reuse of building materials by way of incentives, and restrict wantonly wasteful practices through local by-laws and other legal means, we can do as much good as if we plant acres of forests. Let’s keep indulging carbon offsets, but look for other ways of mitigating the catastrophic effects of climate change.
Read more about climate change in New York.
Photo of 15-year-old reforested plot of land courtesy Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.