The calculations of a carbon cowgirl

By Briony Penn, December 2010

Offsets could be used to save nature—but a lot can go wrong.

I am a carbon cowgirl. For the last three years, I’ve been riding the range on my pony Green Gold, trying to find out if carbon offsets can help us buy both time and threatened natural ecosystems (which function as carbon sinks) in the climate-change countdown. 

If ever there was a wild-west frontier, the carbon markets are it, with cowboys from Texas to Hamburg lassoing carbon deals. 

I have been venturing into the lesser known territory of conservation offsets for two good reasons: First, there is no human invention on Earth that can surpass stomata for sucking carbon out of the air and storing it in wood, leaves and soil. And secondly, our biggest source of carbon emissions in BC—more than transportation and energy sectors together—is industrial land uses and destruction of our forest sinks. You don’t hear about this statistic because there is a loophole in the Kyoto protocol that doesn’t require us to include forest emissions in our carbon accounting. 

So I’ve ridden my horse down Howe Street again, but this time I’ve tethered her at the base of those skyscrapers and taken my chances in the boardrooms. I have gone into the belly of the beast, and am reporting back to readers who might be confused about offsets, and view them understandably with the same suspicion as another sub-prime bubble. 

The BC government’s recent release of a draft Forest Carbon Offset Protocol, along with their participation in BC’s first public/private forest carbon offset project on Denman Island, have precipitated a lot of questions, and it is time this carbon cowgirl waded into the discussion. (To those of you who run for cover on this topic, a quick summation: If offsets do what they are supposed to do, then they can be useful. The Denman project, however, is not a good prototype.)

First some background. Offsets were designed as a breaking-in-of-the-bronco to help fund the transition out of a business-as-usual scenario. The general belief is that a carbon tax is the best way to go and offsets are a stopgap measure. Offsets start with the voluntary sector where any dudes can get into the saddle, then progress to legally enforced ones, as in a cap-and-trade system (coming to BC in 2012). Having spent the previous two years on the wild political front running on a federal carbon tax platform, I had to ask myself the question: Do we have the time to wait around for political change? I got into the carbon saddle to learn the ropes and see if small pilots could enable large democratic institutions to follow.

To make offsets do what they are supposed to do, principles must be applied through the international protocols to ensure projects have genuine atmospheric benefit. To that end, it is critical to ask of every offset project: Does the project lead to a different scenario than business-as-usual? Second, does the project avoid shifting the problem elsewhere? Third, are credits awarded in the year that the emissions are avoided or captured? And finally, are these emissions avoided permanently with insurance and legally binding documents?

Most readers will not even be aware that forest offsets are an option. We have become so accustomed to offsets that are “grey” like bioenergy and waste projects—not “green” with stomata—that you could be forgiven for not knowing that saving the Earth was the original motivation. Why? Energy alternatives involve gadgets, production and markets; saving forests don’t. The lobby for forest offsets is just a handful of us carbon cowgirls and boys that don’t stand to make any money on a new patent. The international community acknowledges we need to save our forests, but it is one big uphill slog. The slog results from the complexity around measuring carbon and applying those principles—none more complicated than the fluctuations of greenhouse gases in different forests and within the laws, regulations and zoning underlying their use. 

Forest carbon offsets are defined as activities ranging along a continuum from the planting of trees to conserving old growth rainforest (at a thousand tonnes per hectare) with better forest management in the middle. The highest atmospheric benefits come with saving existing standing native forests, especially here on the coast. The smallest benefits come with planting trees, because it takes years for the carbon to be recaptured. Each activity has to pass those tests described earlier. 

That’s why the new Denman Island project, which involves a clearcut on which trees are going to be planted, is questionable. The credits paid out now are for carbon 30-100 years in the future. It can be argued that it rewards clearcutting and planting trees instead of saving the trees in the first place. There is no immediate atmospheric benefit, because they have traded immediate emissions elsewhere, for future carbon capture—which is the last thing the atmosphere needs. The provincial government traded building densities to the developer as part of the acquisition deal, resulting in what in carbon parlance is called “leakage”—because more land will be developed as a result of this project, the problem is leaking elsewhere. Finally, the agreement made to conserve the land—between the ERA Ecosystem Restoration Associates (the company buying the credits) and the provincial government—has no third-party oversight to keep things honest.

The ideal scenario is one in which forest offsets provide an additional revenue stream to community groups or local governments to do something better than we have been doing for the last 100 years. Examples would be conserving our endangered ecosystems, restoring long degraded lands, and rewarding foresters who take less fibre than they are legally entitled to take so that other values of the forest are recognized. 

By any measure, offsets are a very crude tool, but if they start us on a path of valuing the critical role of nature and making us reevaluate our land use laws, then the long-term implications are better than without this tool. We need people reviewing the draft protocols and endorsing only the highest principles and best scenarios. Check the Climate Action Secretariat and Pacific Climate Trust websites for the draft Forest Carbon Offset Protocols this month. As Mies van der Rohe said: God is in the details.

Briony Penn is currently working with land trusts around British Columbia to establish a 100 percent non-profit-owned Living Carbon enterprise to ensure that offsets benefit biodiversity, climate and the communities that look after our forests.