Sunday, May 27, 2007

Trees and SUVs

Michael Hill of the Associated Press asks the logical question about carbon offsets:
If you plant some trees, is it OK to drive an Escalade?

The question isn't as silly as it sounds. People worried about global warming increasingly are trying to "offset" the carbon dioxide — the leading greenhouse gas — they spew into the atmosphere when they drive, fly or flick on a light. One idea popular with the eco-conscious is to have trees planted for them. You get to keep driving and flying, but those trees are supposed to suck in your trail of carbon.

Whole forests have been funded by tree-loving celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Coldplay, and more modest packages tailored to typical consumers are proliferating.

But some researchers say planting trees — while a good thing — is at best a marginal solution to global warming. Still others decry tree planters who continue to jet off to Cannes, drive their SUVs or generally fail to reduce their fuel-hungry lifestyle. To those critics, plantings and other carbon offsets are like the medieval practice of selling indulgences to wash away sins: It may feel good, but it doesn't solve much.
While countless skeptics have pointed out the hypocrisy of the rich using offsets to assuage their conscience without needing to alter their jet-setting lifestyle, the carbon offset industry has also come under criticism from CoGW true believers -- because too many people who buy offsets believe they've done their part, that no other remedies are necessary to save the planet. In fact, tree planting is woefully inadequate as a carbon dioxide vacuum:

Maybe most importantly, some researchers say it's simply not possible to plant enough trees to have a significant effect on global warming.

Michael MacCracken, chief scientist at the nonpartisan Climate Institute in Washington, said tree-planting has value as a stopgap measure while society attempts to reduce greenhouse gases. But University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver fears tree offsets could steal the focus of a problem that requires technological advances and behavioral changes.

"The danger is that you could actually think you're solving a problem," Weaver said. "It makes you feel good. It makes you feel warm and fuzzy, like changing a couple of light bulbs. But the reality is it's not going to have a significant effect."

Hill's article also notes one other downside to planting lots of trees -- it can actually lead to more warming:
There are other potential problems, however. Some researchers suggest forests in the snowy North might actually increase local warming by absorbing sunlight that would otherwise be reflected into space. And dead, decaying trees release some of that captured carbon back into the atmosphere.
I personally have no objection to tree planting -- more power to those who do so, as long as they're wise about where they plant them. As I've mentioned before, my main target are those who set up the scheme where the rich can continue their lavish, wasteful lifestyles while preaching conservation to the rest of us.