Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Carbon Con?

A recent article in the New York Times describes how one woman with a guilty conscience over her 14-tons-per-year "carbon footprint" opted to fork over $57 to have 11 trees planted on her behalf in the lower Mississippi Valley. Those trees are projected to remove 14 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, the woman presumes, neutralize a year's worth of her carbon emissions. If only it were that easy.

But guess what: The equation only works if those 11 trees remain intact (or are repeatedly replaced) for some tens of millions of years, give or take a few million.

It is certainly true that trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow; the mass of a mature tree consists of a substantial amount of carbon. But when the tree dies its carbon is all too soon released back into the atmosphere. This release can occur through several pathways, including decomposition and burning. Living things like trees participate in this "carbon cycle", where carbon is repeatedly cycled from the atmosphere to their living bodies and back again to the atmosphere when they die.

From a global warming standpoint, the fundamental problem with our carbon emissions is that we are principally emitting fossil carbon by burning fossil fuels. The "fossil" qualifier follows from the fact that the carbon contained in these fuels was extracted from the atmosphere in the geologically distant past. The burning of carbon-rich fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas releases into the atmosphere carbon that had been sequestered in the ground for many millions of years. Every time we drive our cars, heat and light our homes, cook our food, or run our air conditioners we are generally unlocking some of that millions-of-years-old carbon into the atmosphere--with no way to get it back into the ground. Planting trees won't change any of that.

At best, planting trees can slightly slow the onset of global warming by temporarily sequestering carbon in the tree--and that's assuming that our planting results in a net increase of trees. At worst, it can mislead us into thinking we are doing something with long term positive consequences, and thereby delay the action we need to be taking now. Maybe a guilty conscience is a good thing. Maybe we shouldn't let ourselves off the hook so readily.

The only true solution, absent some technological breakthrough that can sequester massive amounts of carbon over geological timeframes (don't hold your breath), is to stop using fossil fuels.

The bottom line: trees are good; plant some. But don't kid yourself into thinking that you are erasing your "carbon footprint". Take real action by cutting your energy use as much as possible. Drive less in the most fuel efficient car you can get. Purchase "green" wind-generated electricity if your utility gives you that option. Reduce your energy use through conservation and efficiency in every way you can think of. Most of all, realize that your use of energy is not so much an issue of personal economics as it is an issue of personal morality.

Copyright (C) 2006 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


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