Ronald Reagan's infamous claim that "trees cause more pollution than automobiles" contained a grain of truth. In warm weather, trees release volatile chemicals that act as catalysts for smog. But the Gipper didn't mention another point that's even more likely to make nature lovers blanch. When it comes to fighting climate change, it's more effective to treat forests like crops than like majestic monuments to nature.

Over its lifetime, a tree shifts from being a vacuum cleaner for atmospheric carbon to an emitter. A tree absorbs roughly 1,500 pounds of CO2 in its first 55 years. After that, its growth slows, and it takes in less carbon. Left untouched, it ultimately rots or burns and all that CO2 gets released.

Last year, the Canadian government commissioned a study to determine the quantity of carbon sequestered by the country's woodlands, which account for a tenth of global forests. It hoped to use the CO2-gathering power of 583 million acres of woods to offset its Kyoto Protocol-mandated responsibility to cut greenhouse gas emissions. No such luck. The report found that during many years, Canadian forests actually give up more carbon from decomposing wood than they lock down in new growth.

A well-managed tree farm acts like a factory for sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, so the most climate-friendly policy is to continually cut down trees and plant new ones. Lots of them. A few simple steps: Clear the oldest trees and then take out dead trunks and branches to prevent fires; landfill the scrap. Plant seedlings and harvest them as soon as their powers of carbon sequestration begin to flag, and use the wood to produce only high-quality durable goods like furniture and houses. It won't make a glossy photo for the Sierra Club's annual report, but it will take huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere.


What a cool idea: Instead of reducing our own carbon emissions, we'll pay other people to reduce theirs. Win-win!

Not so fast. Carbon offsets — and emissions-trading schemes, their industrial-scale siblings — are the environmental version of subprime mortgages. They both started from some admirable premises. Developing countries like China and India need to be recruited into the fight against greenhouse gases. And markets are a better mechanism for change than command and control. But when those big ideas collide with the real world, the result is hand-waving at best, outright scams at worst. Moreover, they give the illusion that something constructive is being done.
A few fun facts: All the so-called clean development mechanisms authorized by the Kyoto Protocol, designed to keep 175 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere by 2012, will slow the rise of carbon emissions by ... 6.5 days. (That's according to Roger Pielke at the University of Colorado.) Depressed yet? Kyoto also forces companies in developed countries to pay China for destroying HFC-23 gas, even though Western manufacturers have been scrubbing this industrial byproduct for years without compensation. And where's the guarantee that the tree planted in Bolivia to offset $10 worth of air travel, for instance, won't be chopped down long before it absorbs the requisite carbon?
Nationally managed emissions-trading schemes could do a better job than Kyoto's we-are-the-world approach by adding legal enforcement and serious oversight. But many economists favor a simpler way: a tax on fossil fuels. A carbon tax would eliminate three classes of parasites that have evolved to fill niches created by the global climate protocol: cynical marketers intent on greenwashing, blinkered bureaucrats shoveling indulgences to powerful incumbents, and deal-happy Wall Streeters looking for a shiny new billion-dollar trading toy. Back to the drawing board, please.


Look at the environmental protection agency's CO2-per-kilowatt-hour map of the US and two bright patches of low-carbon happiness jump out. One is the hydro-powered Pacific Northwest. The other is Vermont, where a 30-year-old nuclear reactor, Vermont Yankee, keeps the Ben & Jerry's cold. The darkest area corresponds to Washington, DC, where coal-fired power plants release 520 times more atmospheric carbon per megawatt-hour than their Vermont counterpart. That's right: 520 times. Jimmy Carter was right to turn down the heat in the White House.

There's no question that nuclear power is the most climate-friendly industrial-scale energy source. You can worry about radioactive waste or proliferating weapons. You can complain about the high cost of construction and decommissioning. But the reality is that every serious effort at carbon accounting reaches the same conclusion: Nukes win. Only wind comes close — and that's when it's blowing. A UK government white paper last year factored in everything from uranium mining to plant decommissioning and determined that nuclear power emits 2 to 6 percent of the carbon per kilowatt-hour as natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels.

Embracing the atom is key to winning the war on warming: Electric power generates 26 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and 39 percent of the United States' — it's the biggest contributor to global warming.1 One of the Kyoto Protocol's worst features is a sop to greens that denies carbon credits to power-starved developing countries that build nukes — thereby ensuring they'll continue to depend on filthy coal.

Author: ArchitectPage


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