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Efficacy of carbon offsets: Part 2

In the Act Locally column that ran Feb. 25 I found myself questioning the wisdom of using reforestation as a means for offsetting greenhouse gas emissions.

Certainly, trees do absorb airborne carbon dioxide through their leaves. However, when confronted with actual numbers regarding how many trees are needed to offset emissions (according to Plant Oregon, one redwood tree takes four years to consume the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by one gallon of gasoline), reversing climate change through reforestation on a grand scale seems impractical, if not outright dangerous to me.

Past programs already have caused Oregon serious problems. Against state recommendations, owners of privately held, clear-cut forests have been replacing trees with more seedlings than the land can support. I learned of this dilemma a few years ago from a former firefighter, and later confirmed facts with the Oregon Department of Forestry. Indeed, owners were reinserting two or three seedlings for each single tree that had been harvested, creating unhealthy monocultures that are unable to withstand drought, leaving forests vulnerable to fire.

SOCAN’s founder Alan Journet put it this way: “The analogy I have often made is that plantations are to wildfire what mobile home parks are to tornadoes: Plantations don’t start fires, just as mobile home parks don’t start tornadoes, but if one comes through, the destruction is massive.”

Journet linked me to a New Yorker Magazine article about California’s Yurok Tribe, which has commodified its old growth forests, turning them into marketable carbon offsets as a means to raise cash.

Author Carolyn Kormann quotes the head of the Yurok Tribe’s Forestry Program: “Our neighboring tribe, the Hupa, is looking into it now, how we’re bringing in money with our carbon credits. And how we’re selling ’em to these big industries so they can keep doing what they do,” he said. “They buy our air, so they can, you know, pollute theirs.” (bit.ly/2NAiS5B)

To be clear — a financial instrument was created by the State of California which enabled a tribe to sell clean air generated by existing forests as an excuse to enable certain businesses to continue producing GHG emissions.

While I agree with Alan that providing the Yuroks with a means to acquire funds to repurchase lands previously stolen from them by the government is a just cause, I find the mode through which this is being conducted deeply troubling. Money is exchanging hands under the guise of carbon reduction, but no amount of GHG emissions is actually being lessened.

From what I have recently read, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Nationwide, the nonprofit agencies that manage carbon offsets are creating wealth for themselves, but in the process GHG emissions are not being offset in a one-to-one basis — as I would have assumed carbon offsets were meant to do.

Journet voiced his own mixed feelings about offsets. While continuing to be strongly in support of HB2020, Oregon’s proposed Cap and Trade bill, he is concerned that “Poor quality offsets include those that do not — in reality — produce the greenhouse gas emissions reduction or greenhouse gas capture benefits that proponents claim. This is why credible third-party certification is crucial. Green America (bit.ly/2OOYUWS) offers an excellent description of carbon (greenhouse gas) offsets along with tips on how to maximize the benefit.

The eight tips under ‘What To Look For’ should be embodied in any Offset program.

Journet may be right to worry about the existence of unscrupulous actors, and therefore a clear need for regulation, but I see the problem as much broader:

Organizations claiming — real or no — to have environmentally sound objectives become certified as “nonprofits” so they can serve as middlemen in the carbon trade. They bring in funds from the sale of offsets and place them in trust, keeping 20% as “management” fees. The rest of the money can be held within their accounts for up to two years (generating dividends or interest), by the end of which time it must have been invested in projects that hold promise of creating renewable energy (but with no absolute guarantees).

These nonprofits may be completely scrupulous actors and properly following state regulations, yet they can bring in thousands and/or millions of dollars. Sadly, I have a concrete example of this.

Rachel Wray, of the Oregon Department of Energy, kindly sent me a copy of a recent report from a nonprofit (that shall remain nameless). The report touted the organization’s compliance with Oregon’s regulations. However, the report’s financial terminology overwhelmed me. I contacted a trusted friend who works in the financial service sector, hoping he might already be familiar with the offset program, and could explain it in a way that enabled me to better inform my readers.

My friend began the conversation by vehemently railing against offsets, seeing them as a government-generated vehicle by which the rich can get richer off the backs of the average worker. Ouch! We ended our discussion by agreeing that, rather than purchasing offsets, individuals would be better served by directly investing in companies that are developing renewable forms of energy.

I forwarded him several documents to review. He then sent me a copy of the 2016 tax forms for the nonprofit in question. (note: non-profit’s 990 tax forms are public record). The agency’s in-coming funds were in the multiple hundreds of thousands; its annual budget was $4.5 million, and its current holdings sat at just under $30 million. Salaries were over $1 million! As my friend put it, “This is BIG business!”

Readers, please, if you feel compelled to assuage your GHG guilt, don’t throw your money away.

Encourage green technologies by investing directly in local businesses, and/or purchasing stocks in publicly traded corporations that develop effective renewable sources of energy. (If all goes well, you could even profit from successful projects that improve environmental problems.)

Consider this radical choice, suggested by a former president of Mills College: Purchase a few (or many) shares of stock in a publicly- traded company which does not make environmentally friendly choices. Stock owners are entitled to attend annual shareholders’ meetings; once there, you can advocate for changes to company policy.

Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s.

Photo by Nina EgertFir trees planted close together with Mount McLoughlin in the background.