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The value of offsets: A counter-argument

Carbon offsets represent a way that entities emitting greenhouse gases (GHG) can compensate for those emissions. While offsets do not eliminate the emissions, offsets do provide a mechanism for neutralizing them. Thus, conscious as we may be of the GHG cost, and reticent as we might be to do it, if we absolutely have to take an airline flight, we can recognize the vast GHG emissions it produces and neutralize that negative by investing in an activity that either captures an equivalent amount of GHG from the atmosphere (eg: forest growth or regenerative agriculture), or generates electricity with equivalent reduced GHG emissions (eg: wind or solar farms).

This doesn’t eliminate our emissions, but it does neutralize their negative effect.

I appreciate the extensive space Dr. Nina Egert (Tidings, April 5th) gave to quoting me, but not her use of my quotes to support a view inconsistent with mine.

In terms of carbon dioxide capture rate, reports indicate that the average tree (though with considerable variability based on size and species) absorbs 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. Meanwhile, one gallon of gasoline produces about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide when combusted. This is inconsistent with the redwood story Dr. Egert reported about how little those trees capture. However, on a larger scale, it’s worth noting that OSU research tells us our Oregon forests collectively are responsible for capturing about half (some 30 Million Metric Tons) of the In-boundary greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) emitted by the state (about 60 Million Metric Tons).

This suggests the potential for forests to impact atmospheric GHG concentration positively is substantial — and far from the trivial amount suggested by Dr. Egert.

In criticizing offsets, Dr. Egert turns the principle on its head. Offsets are not established to allow pollution. The purpose offsets serve, whether they are neutralizing the emissions of industry or our personal airline travel, is to impose a cost on the polluter (i.e. buying the offsets) that encourages them (and us) to re-think their (our) behavior or compensate for that behavior.

While there are certainly opportunities for offset programs to be abused, problems can be solved in the rule-making phase by insisting, as HB2020 insists, that offset projects are restricted to regions that can be certified as effective, must meet basic standards, that offsets are limited in the number any given polluter can use, and that polluters in air quality non-attainment areas are precluded from using offsets to allow their continued pollution of surrounding skies.

What Dr. Egert also failed to mention was the potential benefits of offsets. Within any effort to cap emissions and invest proceeds, not every emitter will be targeted nor will every beneficial project be funded. What offsets allow is the investment from polluters into projects that might otherwise not occur. In the HB2020 scenario, this includes projects that both generate electricity from renewable sources, and projects that capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through regenerative agriculture and forestry. Without Offsets in the program, rural Oregon would be far less well served by HB2020 than it is.

Alan Journet is the Co-Facilitator for Southern Oregon Climate Action Now and can be reached at alan@socan.info.

Alan Journet