Saturday, May 12, 2007


Flying the Guilt-Free Skies: Paying to Absolve the Sin of Emissions

How to Fly the Guilt-Free Skies. This was my introduction to carbon offsets, an article in the NRDC journal (winter 2005) by a travel writer with environmental sympathies trying to rationalize his way of life. The idea is to offset carbon emissions by coupling these actions with others that create carbon sinks of equal proportion. There are organizations, especially websites, that can do the computation for you and take your money to supposedly fund the offsetting activities.

The foundational offsetting action is tree-planting. Forests as well as oceans are carbon sinks. I heat with wood. When I first took my forested “holding” on our landtrust – essentially a lifetime lease – a fellow community member, a retired nuclear engineer, calculated that I could heat with wood and sustain the 3.8 acres, for the woodlot would easily regenerate 2-3 cords of wood harvested yearly. In fact, we use on average one to one and a half cords, and there have been times that I contemplated a little side cordwood business to keep up with the dead and dying specimens in our healthy ridge forest. The balance I strive to achieve does not rely on tree planting, but is the natural process of ongoing forest regeneration.

“Scrubbing” our emissions by carbon offsets in the form of tree-planting is a mixed bag. Sources that I trust say NOT to fund offsetting technologies that rely on tree-planting because the efficacy of such actions depends upon where you plant, and which species are used. It is a complex process, involving albedo as well as the speed of the respiration cycle in trees. And when does this offsetting ameliorization take place? Granted the main CO2 uptake is in a young forest, but the calculations are made over a 60 year life cycle. If we’re talking about offsetting our emissions in the imperiled now, not during the potentially chaotic downswing in the latter half of the century, then a more honest tree-planting activity would be Real Time Carbon Banking, where enough trees are planted to offset 2007 emissions in 2007. That is a lot of trees. Alternatively, one can purchase offsets that fund alternative energy projects in a wide variety of places, especially those groups who would have a hard time raising money for these capital-intensive projects. Examples:

The screening of An Inconvenient Truth was undoubtedly a protracted watershed moment, for 2006 marked the year that most US citizens got it, and the retrograde anti-science types began their final retreat, shrieking louder as they sensed their historical moment was passing. The film deserved it’s award as the best, and indeed most timely, documentary. But the most prominent image in the film was Al Gore’s jetting all over the world to give his presentations. Knowing what I do about jet fuel emissions, I found this deeply disturbing as a model for the potential activists seeing the film.

All of us have to weigh the importance of our footprints as we work to change our own and others’ habitual carbon-filthy behaviors, and certainly there are going to be incidental contradictions as we start contracting the footprint. I was struck in the Ram Das interview with the Australian John Seed, a leading deep ecologist, that Seed readily accepted this contradiction as an occupational hazard necessary to meet the dire emergency of our times. But by which criteria do we assess the means we employ to enact our imperative to act at this critical juncture in earth history? Gandhi walked and rode the train to project his message. The website What Would Jesus Drive? misses the radical nature of his message. I think you can forget the idea of Jesus as driving a hybrid, even more, being a jet-setter.

A few weeks after seeing An Inconvenient Truth, I saw Gore’s claim that his family lived a carbon-neutral existence. I was deeply skeptical. Recently, I read about the huge Gore mansion, and the amount of natural gas, costing more than $2400/month, required for space heating and cooling. Something is deeply wrong with the assumption that one can simply buy green credits and keep living an excessive lifestyle. Gore and Queen Elizabeth, who spent $20,000 to offset her recent trip for the Jamestown quater-centenary, may be able to afford these offsets. The rich are invited to buy indulgences in the form of carbon offsets, leaving the rest of us to wallow in our state of ecological sin. Most of us live like kings but can’t afford to pay the true costs. As for the efficacy of the indulgences, are they guaranteed to deliver on their carbon-reduction promises? Green indulgence would indeed be a better term than carbon offsets, for it would point back to our greatest unmerited indulgence, to live as if there were three or four earths to support our (American) lifestyles.

Case in point: college age kids. Grist just ran an article featuring an eco-activist working with the students and administration to make Brown University’s carbon-neutral pledge an honest one. Yet these same Brown students fly an average of 16,000 miles a year (documented by an on-line commentator, citing examples from that student body’s version of “What did you do this summer?”). With or without offsets, is this just and sustainable? A friend who “graduated” from one of my deep ecology workshops gave a similar story about her daughter-in-law’s eco-footprint calculation. She was looking great until she plugged in her three-four air trips for the year. This is a familiar story for many of my friends and family. My own son, a deeply committed environmentalist, has made it clear that he will not curtail his air travel in order to be “pure,” to be carbon-neutral.He owns no real estate and very little stuff - other than climbing gear. Yet when he travels - on average slightly less than the Brown figure - he is producing roughly the same footprint as a burgher with a large house, inefficient space heating, and conventional diet who stays put. We love travel, and, thanks to the petroleum interval, are in its golden age – at least until the markets realize oil has peaked. And I understand that travel, undertaken with care and a sympathetic, open-minded, inquisitive spirit, can help make a more rounded, whole person, certainly one with a global perspective. Many of us assume that traveling widely is part of a liberal education. This is particularly true of travel to cultures that are radically different from our own. I have frequently thought that the value of universal service for our youth would be that many of the options could include exposure to these cultures, such as Peace Corps service. But accessing many of them requires transoceanic travel. On the other hand, one can reach some of the nearer cultures by train and bus. If one is not committed yet to a job and family, still in a state of psychosocial moratorium (those college kids), why not even bicycle or take a freighter? And those of us who don’t have to measure our yearly vacation in terms of a few weeks have sufficient time to take the train, even across the continent (as I will do for the fourth time to attend that same son’s wedding in Yosemite this fall). But air travel is more convenient, and still absurdly cheap, so we – virtually all of us – are tempted. Some, businesspeople and the moneyed class, are tempted a lot. I certainly am not ready to give up my free miles. The imperative in the face of climate change is not for the shrinking number of those who can afford them to buy indulgences but to radically change our lives. And I do not mean simply becoming more efficient and conserving more. I mean letting go of whole categories of desire, and subjecting every supposed need to what are the implications of this act for Gaia? What we all really want, beyond meeting our basic needs, is spiritual fulfillment, meaningful lives, and, because we are social animals, community. Giving up on habitually using three and a half earths to fulfill what we think we require need not mean deprivation, but an opportunity to live more fully, and yes, much closer to home, which would be a huge boost towards fulfilling our neglected need for community.

Union of Concerned Scientists has a helpful analysis of comparative emissions by air, train, bus, and car. Going by train is significantly more efficient only if the train is mostly full, which is true only on some routes. A transcontinental air trip on a fully loaded plane uses the same emissions as a 35 mpg car with two passengers. Short flights are the worst, since so much energy is used in takeoff and landing (braking). But flying has the added downside that its emissions occur in the stratosphere, whose chemistry multiplies their effect. The most efficient means of motor travel is a long-distance bus.

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