Air travel and forest offsets

Moonlighting from his CCPA gig, Ben Parfitt has this to say about airlines, climate change, forests and offsets in a feature article for the Georgia Straight:

The airline industry, among others, is banking heavily on offsets taking flight. So, too, it appears, is the British Columbia government. No fewer than three people currently report directly to Premier Gordon Campbell on climate-change issues. … But like so much on the climate-change front these days, the government and major industries alike often find themselves hopelessly compromised. Air travel is a classic case in point. On the one hand, the industry and government trumpet the virtues of offsets. On the other, they actively promote increased air travel. In order to work, then, an awful lot of successful offset programs must be in place. And we’ll have to be certain that they actually work. Otherwise, all that offsets may deliver is a lot of hot air, both literally and figuratively.

At first blush, planting trees seems a natural choice in any offset strategy. Through the marvels of photosynthesis, trees suck vast amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air. Over the course of 80 years, the average tree locks up about one tonne of carbon this way. Next to oceans, which pull in even more of the heat-trapping gas, trees are our planet’s greatest natural carbon “sinks”. And natural sinks, it bears saying, are far more beneficial than technologies employed in energy-intensive industries such as oil and natural gas, technologies that can strip CO2 from fossil fuels and inject it deep underground for sequestration.

… How important are trees in the grand scheme of things? Well, consider this. Today, according to the UN’s IPCC, the burning of fossil fuels results in the annual release of about seven billion metric tonnes of carbon worldwide. According to Werner Kurz, a leading international authority on forests and carbon sequestration and senior research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service (CFS), Canada’s managed forest alone holds twice that much carbon. (The “managed forest” includes much but not all of Canada’s total forested area, and it is generally the area of forestland considered available to log.)

… [A] big caveat … is the issue of time. Environmentally conscious travellers opting to pay a voluntary carbon offset fee on their next Air Canada flight may not know it, but it will take 80 or so years for their offset to actually work. That’s because the calculation is based on the carbon sequestered by a planted tree over that period of time. … Who will be around to ensure that a tree planted today does not burn down tomorrow? Or, as is so starkly evident today, that we don’t end up in the midst of another cataclysmic mountain pine beetle outbreak that reduces millions of healthy pine trees to rapidly greying spires of deadwood? And what about all the carbon locked up in those dead trees? What happens if they burn? Or, more likely, rot at the stump, topple over, and then slowly decompose, releasing all of the stored carbon back into the atmosphere?

IN THE MEANTIME, the companies that are encouraging their customers to go green continue burning fossil fuels. Fuel efficiency, as the airline-industry-funded Air Transport Action Group claims, may be improving to the point where the average plane “exceeds the efficiency of any modern compact car on the market”. But because more people fly every year, jet-fuel use and greenhouse-gas emissions are soaring. Air Canada, for example, reported fuel consumption in 2006 of more than 3.81 billion litres, an increase of 4.6 percent over the previous year. That means that last year, the CO2 emissions from Canada’s largest air carrier were on the order of 9.7 million tonnes. WestJet, Air Canada’s major domestic competitor, had an even sharper increase in fuel usage, jumping almost 12 percent over the same period.

Meanwhile, major destination and departure points such as Vancouver International Airport keep getting busier. A $1.4-billion expansion at the airport, now entering its third year, will add nine gates to the self-described “second largest international passenger gateway on the west coast of North America”. That will keep the airport on target to see about 700,000 additional passengers per year moving into and out of the facility, which currently processes about 17 million passengers per year.

And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the airport’s true ecological footprint. Consider the rapid-transit line being built to link the airport with Vancouver’s downtown waterfront. The new Canada Line will stretch some 19 kilometres in a generally north-south direction and will terminate at the expanding, cost-overrun-saddled Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre. It is doubtful that either project would have been funded were it not for business from the airport, and, in fact, the Vancouver Airport Authority is footing $300 million of the cost to build the Canada Line.

Just to make the almost 380,000 cubic metres of concrete needed to build both projects will pump almost another one million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Then there’s all the steel rebar needed to reinforce that concrete, roughly 47 million kilograms in all. Most of that is being shipped across the ocean from China, where it is produced through the burning of mountains of coal.

… BUT WHAT, EXACTLY, does forest conservation mean, especially today, when landscapes show signs of such dramatic stress? Millions upon millions of dead pine trees litter the landscape in B.C.’s Interior. The mountain pine beetles that killed those trees threaten to overrun jack pine trees in the pan-Canadian boreal forest, an ecological niche they previously never occupied and in a landscape that many environmental organizations say should be preserved because of its value as a carbon sink. Worse yet, the pine beetles aren’t alone in building to spectacular numbers and taking out so many trees. Other forest pests such as the spruce budworm and tree diseases such as dothistroma, a blight that attacks the needles of young pine trees, are exhibiting similarly anomalous and disquieting behaviours.

As scientists like the CFS’s Werner Kurz have shown, there are no neat, straight lines when it comes to forests and the carbon they capture and store. Forests are in a constant state of flux. In reports that Kurz has coauthored and that have been submitted to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Victoria-based scientist has documented years in which Canadian forests were carbon sinks and years when they were carbon sources. In recent years, in particular, the emissions associated with forest fires and the onset of epic events such as the mountain pine beetle outbreak have shifted Canadian forests from sink to source status. Such flips point to just how precarious “forest conservation” may be in any strategy to combat climate change.

The propensity for significant chunks of Canada’s northern forests to go up in flames was just one reason why the Canadian government elected not to include forest management in its arsenal for fighting climate change under the Kyoto Protocol, a decision Kurz believes was the right one to make.

Planting and nurturing trees won’t solve our climate-change woes, Kurz continues. But it will help. So, among other things, he advocates: preserving or increasing the amount of managed forestland in B.C. and elsewhere; ending climatically unfriendly forest practices such as burning the slash and other woody debris left behind at logging sites; increasing the length of time between reforestation and harvesting; preventing forest fires where possible; and doing much more with the aforementioned wood waste. That might take the form of shredding marginally economic logs into strands to make panelling products such as oriented strand board. Or it might involve gathering up the wood and converting it to energy, either through making wood pellets that can be used to heat homes or businesses or burning the waste wood under extremely high heat to generate electricity.

IN THE MEANTIME, one particularly inconvenient truth remains. Offset programs offer some prospects to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere or to displace the use of some fossil fuels. But they will have to grow very quickly just to keep pace with the added energy being consumed by the airline industry and others.

Meanwhile, the greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere continue to climb. In his book Heat, journalist Monbiot argues that not only is the scientific consensus that human activities are warming the planet irrefutable but our response to it must be swift and all-encompassing. His prescription, driven by what science is saying about our global climate system being so precariously balanced, is a 90-percent reduction in carbon emissions in just 23 years.

Under the circumstances, asking consumers to make voluntary payments to offset their greenhouse-gas emissions seems a trifle insufficient.

2 comments

  • Marc,

    Thanks for sending Ben’s great article. I would like to clarify that there are more ways to offset carbon emissions than planting trees. Another way to do it is to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that keep carbon in the ground in the first place. Offsetters.ca is a Vancouver-based not-for-profit that invests carbon offset funds into energy projects that would not have taken place without its involvement. This includes installation of heat capture systems (ground source heat and heat from the production of ice) on the speed skating oval being built in Richmond for the 2010 Games; heat will be distributed to 2,050 homes in the area, replacing gas or electric and saving up to 5,000 tonnes of GHG emissions annually.

    We share many of Ben’s concerns about biological sequestration projects (ie. reforestation in this case), and focus instead on using carbon funds to drive installation of next generation energy systems to get us out of the current climate challenge.

    Best,

    Donovan Woollard
    Offsetters Climate Neutral Society

  • Donovan,

    Thanks for that comment on other projects that may be worthwhile.

    I heard Mark Jaccard remark recently that since what we are doing is taking carbon from the ground and putting it into the air, then the only true offset is something that takes carbon from the air and puts it back underground. That pretty much nails the issue for me.

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