New Zealand Green - Carbon

Carbon and climate change

Carbon has become very important to people because of the climate change crisis. That is because the immediate cause of unnatural climate change is increasing levels of Greenhouse Gas in our atmosphere and carbon dioxide is an important one of them.

Carbon dioxide is produced when we dig up and burn buried organic matter like oil and coal and when we cut down our natural forests and not replace them. Although many gases are greenhouse gases they are often talked about in terms of their effect as though they were carbon dioxide, in units of 1tonne. For example 1 tonne CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) = 1 tonne CO2 = 0.0476 tonne methane.

The world needs to rapidly reduce its CO2e to preserve a reasonable world for our descendants. But that is not so easy because the means are not yet generally available, not least because there has been no market for them in the past. For example fuel that does not cause any net CO2e emissions (like sustainably produced bio-fuel) is certainly not available at our local service stations. That is one of the reasons why a demand for carbon offsets has arisen. It’s something we can do now.

Carbon offsets

Carbon Offsetting is a technique whereby an emission of say, 1 tonne CO2e is offset by combining it with another process that absorbs 1 tonne of CO2e so that the process as a whole can become carbon neutral or carbon zero as some call it.

Some people do not approve of this process as they think buying offsets is like buying a licence to pollute. In our opinion that is a little simplistic, not only because the need to reduce emissions is urgent. Offsets can work to mitigate climate change because no one likes spending money when they don’t have to and the best way to not spend money on offsets is to reduce emissions by other more direct means.

We think that the real answer as to whether offsets are effective depends on the exact nature of the offsetting technique. Below we discuss a few examples. All are Carbon Credits (a term arising out of the Kyoto protocol) but we are not convinced that they are they all valid offsets.

Offsets from mystery techniques

There are many schemes that offer carbon offsets but do not say much about how they are achieved. Often they are put forward by an organisation that seems to think that, because they are well known and are therefore presumably beyond reproach, people do not need to know the detail of how the money is spent. Well that may be true but one does not have to look too far these days to see many examples of where apparently trustworthy organisations have failed to deliver a performance consistent with their image.

We think that sponsors should know exactly how their money is being spent. As discussed below there are several techniques for offsetting that do not absorb any CO2e at all. And how can a sponsor know much of their money gets to hit the ground if they are not told exactly where it goes. If an organisation does not wish to provide proper answers to these questions then one must wonder why.

Offsets from wind farms

NZgreen is absolutely not against wind farms in principle; it seems silly to endanger ourselves so by burning fossil fuels when there is so much apparently free renewable energy available. But we are not sure that wind farms offset CO2e as such, in fact not only do they not absorb any CO2e but the manufacture installation and maintenance of them causes quite a few emissions.

The reasoning behind allowing CO2e offsets from wind farms is that they should result in an indirect reduction because if we gain CO2e free electricity from a wind farm then we should be able to switch off, say, a similar sized fossil fuelled CO2e emitting station somewhere else. But what if the extra capacity is diverted to growth rather than emissions reduction as has been the case just about everywhere in the world. We might be able to say that the position has not deteriorated as much as it could have but we certainly cannot say that we have reduced emissions and that is what we must do.

Of course there should be a differentiation in favour of renewable energy but we think that should come about by attaching the carbon cost to the price of energy that has arisen from CO2e emitting generation. Then we would have the result without having the distortions because the costs would reflect the reality of the situation.

The facts are simple, wind farms do not directly remove CO2e at all so they cannot truly be said to offset anything. In our opinion calling oneself carbon neutral or carbon zero, when that would mean to the average person that their business has zero net emissions and when that supposed state has arisen out of a process using carbon credits from wind farms, is misleading, possibly fraudulent.

Offsets from nuclear power

All the arguments against the idea of using carbon credits from wind farms to offset emissions, apply to nuclear power stations, only more so. Perhaps it should be remembered that we, in this context, are trying to solve an environmental problem, not an energy problem. The environmental disasters that can happen and have happened when things go wrong are absolutely mind boggling. We think that the human race will have to be awfully and needlessly hooked on the notion that there is no other way to have a successful economy other than one based on growth, if nuclear power stations, as we know them, are to be considered any sort of answer.

Offsets from plantations

As a tree or indeed any plant grows it takes in CO2 by absorbing the carbon into its structure and releasing the oxygen back into the atmosphere. How fast a tree can take in CO2 pretty much depends on how fast it can grow and ultimately how much it can take in pretty much depends on how big it can get. In the end, as far as climate change is concerned, it is the total amount of CO2 that can be absorbed that is important so Pine trees, which can grow very big if allowed to, are much better than, say, grass.

CO2 reductions from Pine forests also have the potential to be valid offsets in carbon neutral type programs as clearly CO2 is directly removed from the atmosphere. But to be totally valid the CO2 must not only be taken out but kept out and this is one area where the validity of carbon offsets from commercially harvested pine plantations can come into question. At this point in time, there is no mechanism for tracking what happens to the wood after harvesting. Clearly if the wood was to be burnt, all the CO2 that had been accumulated would be released and there would be no net CO2 taken in at all.

We think that where the forest is to be clear cut, which is what happens a lot in NZ, the case for valid offsets is very weak and non existent if the forest is not regrown. This happens a lot in NZ at the moment where many old forests are being turned into dairy land.

On the other hand if Pine forests were to be harvested at a rate no faster than they grew again there would be genuine offsets available, about half of the amount that could be available if the forest was not harvested at all. So as is common in most things the devil is in the detail.

One thing that Pine forests have in common with wind farms and nuclear power stations have in common is that they all have the potential to cause environmental problems of their own. Pine forests cannot support a viable and useful eco-system if they are cut down as soon as they start to mature. Also exotic environments encourage exotic pests and it would be a very sad prospect if we were to encourage lots of more or less abandoned pine plantations full of possums and stoats. And then there is the weed problem from windblown seed.

In our Sound taxpayers money was used to plant pine trees and now it is being used again to remove them from the native reserves nearby. That’s offsetting of a kind but surely not the type that anyone would want to pay for.

Offsets from Indigenous eco-system restoration

Carbon offsets are a very important part of the NZgreen system. Firstly they do much to set tangible value so that the restoration work can be sustainably funded. Secondly the carbon assessment process provides a very effective and simple way of measuring forest health and progress because the more developed the forest is the more carbon will be stored.

NZgreen only uses indigenous eco-system restoration to provide carbon offsets, as we believe they are the best because;

  • Growing forest is one of the few available ways of directly removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
  • A natural forest is what is supposed to be growing. There is no chance of undesirable side effects. Undesirable side effects are what got us in to this mess.
  • A natural forest can be restored through natural regeneration, a process much less costly than planting.
  • A natural forest supporting a natural eco-system will eventually store more carbon/Ha than any other type of forest, a feature far more important than speed which is meaningless even in the medium term except perhaps to a politician.
  • A natural forest particularly our unique natural forest here in NZ is an asset far more useful and valuable in terms of deriving other forms of sustainable income in the future. This is very important if we are not to have a huge problem with badly managed and abandoned forests in the future.

But most of all;

  • A massive restoration of natural forests supporting natural eco-systems is exactly what we need if we are to avoid all the other environmental problems that will come to plague the human race if we base our fight against climate change on carbon only focussed techniques that will not only ignore all the other problems we have but very likely cause others, quite possibly just as serious as the one we tried to solve.