Hot Air Cuts California Forests Out of Carbon Offset Program

In order for California’s proposed cap and trade system to be anything but a mockery we need to rip down the “Do Not Disturb” signs on much of California’s forests and commit ourselves to harvesting in California’s forests, even (gasp) clearcutting. Foresters and forest landowners aren’t the only ones who feel this way; the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agrees.

Last month, an out-of-state special interest group derailed the forestry portion of a provisional carbon cap and trade system aimed at lowering California greenhouse gas emissions.  You might guess that an oil company that pressured the California Air Resources Board to fold, but it was in fact a Tucson-based environmental lobby, the “Center for Biological Diversity” (CBD).

“We commend the Air Resources Board for its commitment to addressing the critical environmental questions related to forest carbon credits,” crowed a CBD spokesperson. “It’s crucial that the state not give incentives to business-as-usual clearcutting and other destructive logging practices that hurt our forests and do nothing to address the immediate impacts of climate change.”

It’s a case of the wrongheaded politically spinning a regulator, who should know better. Once again, spin consumes science, and those putatively for a healthy environment have obfuscated for their own gains. “Crisis, real or not, is a commodity,” Tom Knudson wrote in his 2001 series, Environment, Inc., “And slogans and sound bites masquerade as scientific fact.”

For California to be part of the climate change solution, it must remove the “Do Not Disturb” sign currently on its forests. When we don’t cut here, we cut “over there,” contributing to deforestation and environmental degradation elsewhere while also increasing greenhouse emissions. (For more, see “The Illusion of Preservation.”) And it isn’t just foresters like me who think this way. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends that we cut more wood, and use wood in place of concrete, steel, and other wood substitutes. By cutting forests, our forests, not someone else’s forest, we can contribute to saving the world.

For many of us the climate change debate borders on incomprehensible. I’m not saying I understand it all; but some context might be helpful for discerning how forests relate to global warming.

In 1895, Svante August Arrhenius, presented a paper to the Stockholm Physical Society titled, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.” In it, he argued that thermal radiation from the sun warmed the earth’s surface during the day and as the surface cooler at night, certain gases which included CO2 and water vapor, acted as a blanket retarding the escape of heat. The idea of plates of glass in a greenhouse allowing sunlight in and trapping the heat inside worked as a metaphor for the process, hence the ‘greenhouse effect.’

The worry now is that through our use of coal, oil, gas, and other fossil fuels; we have added too much CO2 as a result could the earth may be over-heating.

In 1988, the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess scientific information concerning human-induced climate change and the options for adaptation and minimizing its effects. In 1997, representatives from around the world met in Kyoto. They passed the Kyoto Protocol which sets binding targets for 63 industrialized countries to create five per cent less of their 1990 greenhouse gas (water vapor, methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and ozone) emissions.

In 2006, California passed a law similar to Kyoto, pegging our CO2 output to 1990 levels. Now I am skeptical that reducing our CO2 output will have any meaningful results. I think planting trees in urban settings and painting roads and rooftops white are better uses for our taxes. And we need to reduce tropical deforestation by cutting more trees in temperate forests such as California. All of these actions increase the albedo, the reflectivity of objects, which is part of the models used to predict global warming.

Nevertheless, because trees soak up CO2, the California Air Resources Board adopted a program that included allowing forest management activities for which CO2 emitters could buy carbon credits. The Center for Biological Diversity contends logging practices hurt our forests and do nothing to slow climate change. As I said before, the United Nations’ IPCC disagrees.

The IPCC says deforestation and severely degrading forests accounts for 20-25% of greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC is not talking about timber harvesting regarding deforestation and degradation). It also says the best strategies to prevent degradation and deforestation are: 1) “carbon conservation,” which includes both preventing forest conversion to agricultural uses, subdivisions or other non-forest uses, as well as controlling major fires; 2) “carbon sequestration and storage,” which means expanding forest area and/or biomass of natural and plantation forests; and 3) “carbon substitution,” which broadly means using wood products instead of non-wood products, all of which require more fossil fuel-based energy and materials. According to the IPCC, carbon substitution (wood products over cement, steel, aluminum, plastic, to name a few) has “the greatest mitigation potential in the long term.”

I’m a subject matter expert on growing wood; frankly it’s my passion. The growth and yield of forests is what forestry revolves around. Our California forests have the capacity to produce all the wood we need and export some as well, yet we import 75% of our wood. You can bet the wood we import wasn’t harvested under restrictions as comprehensive as those within California’s Forest Practice Rules requiring Timber Harvesting Plans that consider water, wildlife, and other concerns.

We need to stop trying to preserve everything and pretending that it doesn’t cause a mess elsewhere just because we can’t see it. The “not in my backyard” (Nimby) mentality outsources the mess: to Brazil, to Siberia, to countries not willing to enforce environmental regulations the way California can and will.

There has been a concerted effort to restrict logging by many environmental groups, from the Sierra Club to the Center for Biological Diversity. If green organizations truly cared about reducing CO2, they would embrace forest management in California. They would promote using California forests for the wood products that store carbon. They would demand that the national forests begin harvesting timber in greater quantities. And they would insist that we begin using wood instead of concrete, aluminum, steel, and other wood substitutes.

What can you do? Start buying sustainable California wood. At least, buy wood certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Write congress and tell them to push for harvesting in the national forests, rather than letting wildfires send more CO2 into the air (the California wildfires of 2001 – 2007 reportedly equaled 30 million cars on the road for a year).

Let’s stop pretending wood comes from the lumberyard.

Sources:

Berlik, Mary M., David B. Kittredge, and David R. Foster. “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources.” Journal of Biogeography, 29, 1557–1568

Center for Biological Diversity Media Release, “California Withdraws Harmful ‘Carbon Credits for Clearcuts’ Forest Policy.” (http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2010/logging-credits-02-25-2010.html accessed 14 March, 2010)

Dekker-Robertson, Donna L. and William J. Libby. “American Forest Policy: Some Global Ethical Tradeoffs.” BioScience, Volume 48 No. 6

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,  Technical Paper I: Forest Sector (http://www.gcrio.org/ipcc/techrepI/forest.html accessed 14 March, 2010)

McKillop, William. George Goldman, and Susanna Laaksonen-Craig. “Forestry, Forest Industry, and Forest Products Consumption in California.” UC Berkeley, Publication 8070  (http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/Forestry/8070.aspx accessed 14 March, 2010)

NASA, Earth Observatory Biography. Svante Arrhenius (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Arrhenius/ accessed 14 March, 2010)

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Governor Schwarzenegger, AB 32, and Global Warming: Code Redd

When the search for truth is confused with political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for power.“- Alston Chase, author of “Playing God in Yellowstone.”

‘Redd’ is another ort in the acronym soup of climate-speak from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); it stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.” I’ll get into the particulars shortly on how Redd relates to Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006; Governor Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order S-13-08 directing state agencies to plan for sea level rise and climate impacts; and the attempt by the California Air Resources Board (Carb) to implement both. But first, the historical underpinnings of the global warming debate and why the hang-up on carbon dioxide.

The Genesis of the Greenhouse Effect

In 1895, Swedish chemist Svante August Arrhenius presented a paper to the Stockholm Physical Society titled, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.” Building on previous experiments by Tyndall (certain gases absorb radiation) and others, he argued that thermal radiation from the sun warmed the earth’s surface during the day; and at night, as the surface radiated that energy back into the sky, certain gases and water vapor acted as a blanket to retard the escape of heat. Thus, carbonic acid (carbon dioxide) influenced Earth’s climate, so its abundance or scarcity explained warm periods and ice ages.

About ten years later, he published “Worlds in the Making,” in which he described his “hot-house theory” in layman’s terms. The analogy of glass plates of a greenhouse allowing sunlight through and trapping heat inside was a convenient way to describe the process; hence the ‘greenhouse effect.’ Arrhenius felt that man’s contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere was beneficial because it warded off the return of an ice age.

The earth continued to warm and some thought Arrhenius might be on to something. Others continued to theorize on human-caused CO2’s affect on climate, most notably Guy Callendar and Gilbert Plass. In the 1950s, Plass calculated CO2 absorption of infrared radiation, predicting that doubling earth’s CO2 would produce a 3.6 degrees Celsius warming. Yet, scientific consensus discounted human’s contribution to the greenhouse effect, contending that natural forces exerted far greater influence. Until the 1980s, most scientists believed we were on the verge of another ice age.

The IPCC

Yet, temperatures began steadily rising in the late 1970s. In 1988, the United Nations created the IPCC to assess scientific information concerning human-induced climate change and the options for adaptation and mitigation. The IPCC has now published its fourth assessment (2007) showing that temperature has increased about one degree Celsius over the previous 100 years and a sea level rise of nearly 0.2 meters (0.56 feet). Though if the earth’s average temperature increases 3-5 degrees Celsius, as it has in previous epochs, then we might see a sea level rise of 16 feet.[i]

California Dreamin’: All the leaves are brown

Governor Schwarzenegger and California’s legislature apparently believe, along with much of the rest of the world, the appropriate response is to lower our CO2 emissions. So, about a century after Arrhenius penned his paper, Governor Schwarzenegger signed Executive Order S-13-08 directing all state agencies to develop CO2 strategies to deal with the human-caused portion of global warming. He told a crowd of dignitaries that due to ongoing climate change, “We have to adapt the way we work and plan [to] make sure the state is prepared when heavy rains cause flooding and the potential for sea level rise increases in future years.”

I am skeptical of lowering carbon is the best way to meet these potential threats, preferring direct methods such as effective flood control planning and diking to indirect methods. Nonetheless, due to the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), Governor Schwarzenegger made Carb responsible for overseeing reductions of greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, now less than 10 years off.

This is where Redd comes in (remember Redd? “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation”). Trees do a good job of soaking up CO2 (“sequestering carbon” in IPCC jargon). So, in 2007, Carb embraced the California Climate Action Registry protocols for determining the climate benefits of forest carbon sequestration as part of a Cap-and-Trade system. The only hitch being that those protocols allowed timber harvesting and worse (in the view of some), they seemed to not expressly prohibit—gasp—clearcutting. This upset a number of environmental groups, including the Tucson-based “Center for Biological Diversity” (CBD).

They and their friends dislike timber harvesting in general and clearcutting in particular. You might recall that CBD and others brought suits against Cal-Fire for allowing Sierra Products Industries to practice even-aged management on the SPI forests saying, “A clearcut is about as beneficial to the climate as a new coal-fired power plant.” It turns out CBD and its friends have now persuaded Carb to reverse its earlier decisions.

Politics is Power

Regardless of whether you buy the argument that reducing CO2 will make any difference[i], if you care about reducing our reliance on carbon-based fuels, Carb’s reversal on the accounting protocols is counter-productive.

Tomorrow: Why.


[i] Carbon Dioxide’s Role in Climate Change Calculations

While few dispute CO2 being a ‘greenhouse gas’ (GhG), it’s CO2’s role in climate change that is debated.

The “Warmers” frame the argument this way: since we have seen a increased CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels coupled with a warming trend in the earth’s mean temperature. QED, the cause must be CO2 and therefore lowering CO2 will begin reversing global warming.

The “Skeptics” say that the argument misapplies cause-and-effect. They ask ‘what accounts for the Minoan, Roman, and Medieval Warm periods and the facts that the earth has plunged into ice ages when CO2 has been ten times greater than today? Something else forces major climate changes.’

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The Optimistic Environmentalist

As a child of the 1960’s On April 22, 1970, I, along with 20 million others that day, attended one of the first Earth Day celebrations. We had heard the predictions and we were duly frightened. In those days, most of us in the environmental movement worried about air pollution causing another ice age through global cooling. Many doomsayers proclaimed Malthus—an eighteenth century economist who argued that human population which grew exponentially would quickly outstrip crop yields which grew arithmetically—was a Pollyanna. We stood on the brink of drought and mass starvation; no oil, forests reduced to stumps, foul air, frozen and polluted water. None of that has happened in the past 40 years, perhaps because we made the necessary changes.

It’s because of this looking back that I’m an optimistic environmentalist. The lake is half-full. Though problems do exist, we have hope. We mustn’t squander resources. Yet, I side with Julian Simon. “First, humanity’s condition will improve in just about every material way,” the late economist said. “Second, humans will continue to sit around complaining about everything getting worse.” Such thinking that everything is worsening elicits a siege mentality where we either shut down because we want no more bad news or we feel imperiled.

Those who feel imperiled bang pans, beseeching us to repent and turn away from our profligate ways; Lester Brown—the rightly-renown environmentalist and founder of Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute—is one. He writes of climate change, “Researchers…believe that global warming is accelerating and may be approaching a tipping point…” Brothers and sisters the end is near and we stand upon banana peels between vipers and the abyss. We stand on the brink of droughts and mass starvation; forests reduced to stumps, no oil, foul air, frozen and polluted water.

Let’s recap for those keeping score at home, it’s “The Pollyannas”-7,Malthus and the Prophets of Doom”-0.

Well Malthus and the prophets of doom will continue to say as Bullwinkle J. Moose used to say, “This time for sure.”

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