“Carbon Farming”

(Ode to a Tree)


Putting aside for the moment the question of actual AGW and whether or not it is a crisis, one of the “solutions” for CO2 overabundance is trees.  Or more precisely, equatorial rainforest trees, carbon credit exchanges and farmers doing a poor job of farming.  

Why tropical trees, you ask?  IN 2006, Bala and Caldeira did a study on trees used slow climate change.  The study concluded that trees planted in the tropics were useful, but trees planted in the mid-latitude regions may even make warming worse.  How can that be?  Trees do three things for the planet--absorb CO2, evaporate water and absorb sunlight.  That last function, absorbing sunlight , can actually make the earth warmer which is apparently what happens in temperate zones.  The authors warn we should not cut down regular forests just because they warm the planet.  Trees do things other than regulate CO2 and have value on their own.  It's an interesting statement in that if climate change is a crisis, should we not be doing all we can to stop it including cutting problematic forests?  

Deforestation appears to be very serious.  One source states: “Loss of trees accounts for 20 to 25 percent of greenhouse gas emission world wide—more than oil fueled transportation”.1  So cutting trees is more damaging than driving an SUV?  Trying to understand the “fixes” for climate change reminds one of the Peanuts comic strip where Lucy always moved the football before Charley Brown could kick it.  Lucy was very convincing and Charley kept on hoping this was the time the football didn't get pulled away.  First, SUV's are bad, oil is bad, fossil fuels are evil in general and now cutting trees is  even more serious.  Every time cuts are made in fossil fuel usage, etc. another claim arises and the whole scheme starts over again.  (It is interesting to note that in some articles, carbon credits via reforesting is referred to as a scheme.  It's clear if that's a Freudian slip or a confession of the true intent.)2  

Objections are often raised over the rights of indigenous peoples having their land “repurposed”.   Governments take land and reap the money from the sale of carbon credits.  The farmer may be lost in this—he is left with nothing.  All of this harks back to early America, where a foreigner arrived, bought up land dirt cheap, made questionable trades with the indigenous peoples and reaped the benefits of the “new world”.  A foreign nation takes control of farms for 25 years and plants trees on them.  The foreign nation needs land for carbon offsets and why wouldn't farmers want to plant trees and watch them grow for 25 years.  It's obvious the farmers will prefer trees to food crops, isn't it?  Besides, developed nations know best when it comes to how to save the planet (and what is best is usually what applies to the poor and underrepresented).  Will countries be paying reparations in the future for obtaining land and wealth by exploiting the natives?  The USA already pays millions for past transgressions—are we heaping on future payments by looking for cheap ways to offset carbon?  Probably.  

There exists a large probability of reforesting for carbon credits being abused by governments and companies.  In 2009, it was reported that 16,666 hectares of cultivated land in Tibet were converted to forest over a seven year period.  The forests were planted by China to offset their carbon pollution.  Households displaced by this reforesting received a subsidy of 4,448 yuan per year.  The article noted there was nothing said about what the displaced farmers were doing.  Perhaps just living on the subsidy?  

In Uganda, the New York Times reported 22,000 poor Ugandans were driven off their land in the last few years.  This report was dated September 11, 2011.  An investigation is reportedly underway.  Meantime, homes were reportedly burned to the ground and farmers left homeless and jobless.  With literally millions of dollars at stake, it is very likely abuses are occurring.  Contrary to popular belief, being an “environmentalist” can be just as lucrative as “big oil”.  Articles on investing in reforesting land and projects quoted returns as high as 15%.  There's more to this than love of nature. 


RTT is a firm that provides CO2 carbon reforesting in Costa Rica for 26 American companies.  It was started in 2002 by a dermatologist to offset the CO2 produced in his practice.  Note that this was before it was shown that the tropics are the place to plant trees to reduce carbon.  So why the tropics?  Because the cost of putting in trees and buying land is much cheaper in the tropics.  RTT has a $5000 buy-in for rights to a 2 ½ acre forest.  The sequestration rate is estimated at 25 tonnes/acre per year.  The used-to-be-farmer gets $2000 for the land (average income in Costa Rica is around $10,000), $500/hectare/year and intensive forest management training and cedes all claim to carbon credits and the associated earnings to RTT.  The used-to-be farmer signs a 25 year contract with RTT and cannot harvest trees or use the property except with RTT's permission.  Some timber is harvested and the farmer gets the proceeds.  This is to keep the farmer making as much as cattle farming, hopefully.  The farmer does tend to the trees, though it is unclear if that is a full-time job.


One hopes that contracts with the used-to-be farmers have some provision for what is to be done if there is a fire that wipes out the trees.  It is unclear if a fire would then necessitate more reforestation to compensate for the CO2 from the fire.  Also, judging from this photo, it is okay to cut trees to make really big signs declaring one's environmental correctness and letting all know how wonderful you are (even though rainforests originally did not come with such signs).  

So what could be wrong with such a noble pursuit?  Aside from the probable abuses, no “real” product is produced, other than occasional tree harvesting (after a wait of several years) and it is very probable that farmers in other nations will clear cut forests and start raising the cattle and other food stuffs no longer raised in Costa Rica.  One supposes this could be considered “job security” in that there will be a new clear cut taking the place of the reforested one and polluters will pay to reforest the new areas to offset their emissions.  

Recently, a “wall-to-wall” carbon storage map has been created based on satellite images.  One takes the satellite image, applies a lot of algorithms, corrections, etc but no tangible measurement of “carbon storage”.  The images and data are then used to guide investors where to buy/take “spent” farmland and reforest it.  This is a hallmark of the environmental movement—no data, just pretty graphics.  PBS had a special on fractals a few years back where a group cut down one tree in the rainforest and using fractal math and that one tree, calculated how much carbon the forest was holding.  Using one point and extrapolating to thousands is a very dangerous measurement method.  Without thousands of previous measurements of thousand of trees, there is no way to know if the method is actually accurate.  Of course, if accuracy is not the goal, the method is quite useful to appear scientific and reach your desired conclusion.  

The term “carbon farming” is being used to describe reforestation.  This is right in line with “wind farm” and “solar farm” .  This is a complete juxtaposition of language (double speak?).  Land actually used for agriculture is removed from food production and used for unproven solutions to questionable threats.  One cannot farm wind, solar, or carbon.  Those things are part of nature.  The nature environmentalists claim to care so much about while demonstrating little understanding of how nature functions.  The outcome of farming wind, solar and carbon will be a reduction in food production. That's already been seen clearly with ethanol made from corn.  Reduce the food production enough and you get famine.  Famine will reduce human impacts—dead people don't use valuable, “limited” resources.  A rather harsh outcome, however.  

Worshipping trees has negative consequences for the environment.  Treeless land, such as sagebrush prairie, the open savannah, and deserts are considered “trash” land to be covered by solar panels and wind turbines.  The animal life is also considered expendable in many cases.  People rally around cute critters in the forest and fuzzy polar bears, but often find reptiles and birds of the desert no so likeable.  By focusing on forests, the environmentalists ignore biodiversity in favor of schemes to save the planet.  If you can't save the planet with some sacrifice, save the trees at all costs and trash the rest.  Which does not sound like a rational, useful solution but more of an emotional, frantic one.  

Reforestation and “carbon farming” are quite in tune with the environmental movement:  take away people's livelihood, land and food based on shaky (if any) science and create a welfare class dependent on subsidies and contracts a generation in length all in order to eradicate the human parasites from Gaia and return the planet to it's original, pristine state..

1 www.axisofeco.com/wrong/2008/12/13/can't-see-the-trees-for-the-deforestation

2 http://www.greenhousegas.nsw.gov.au/acp/forestry.asp


 References and additional reading list  









           (New York Times Sept 21, 2011 carried story on Uganda also)