Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Saving Rainforests: international offsets or shell game?

Tropical rainforests, currently subject to deforestation for lumber and grazing land, are a major storehouse of carbon dioxide - when left alone - and a major producer of CO2 emissions - when destroyed. According to the Los Angeles Times, if American corporations were to utilize international offsets being proposed in current climate change legislation, both the forests and U.S. corporations could benefit environmentally and economically.

Times reporter Margot Roosevelt reports that a blue-ribbon panel, consisting of government, corporate, and environmental experts, has issued a report that ascribes some dollar figures to the concept of international offsets - part of the cap and trade concept, whereby polluters can pay for preserving forests in developing nations rather than pay for expensive equipment to deal with their own pollution. The report states that an investment of $9 billion by 2020 would save corporations up to $50 billion that they would have to spend on their own pollution. Given that deforestation accounts for a disproportionate amount of the carbon emissions in the world, that would appear to be a good deal.

The good news is that it would appear that government officials and particularly corporations, notorious for stonewalling efforts to address global warming, are now facing up to the reality and becoming participants in the solution.

The bad news is whether the entire concept of offsets and cap-and-trade is a viable one environmentally. There are many who feel that cap and trade is nothing more than a industrial shell game, where corporations are skirting their responsibilities to address the mess in their own backyard by borrowing against the efforts of those who either have succeeded in their efforts to curb pollution or are in need of financial support to do just that.

"Some environmental groups are critical of forest offsets, tarring them as a scheme to let corporations off the hook for cleaning up their own emissions. Others worry about bogus schemes claiming false preservation credits, since forest carbon is difficult to measure.

The 71-page report is timed to influence the U.S. Senate as it takes up climate legislation. It recommends that the U.S. government invest $1 billion in tropical forest preservation in the next three years. And it pushes to have tropical forest emissions included in a new international treaty to be considered in Copenhagen in December."

My personal jury is still out on the subject. But the concept of cap and trade does beg the question: what are we looking for, an acceptance of our ecological responsibility or an economic advantage? I'm not sure that you can have both, at least initially. Nature is negatively impacted by our pollution - period. And it doesn't postpone those negative effects for one company or industry as a consolation prize for supporting the elimination of pollution somewhere else. Nature doesn't play that game.

Perhaps cap and trade and international offsets were conceived as a transitional approach. My concern is that governments and corporations will latch on to it as the ongoing standard, and the serious measures regarding CO2 emissions that need to be met will remain an elusive goal.

Read entire Los Angeles Times article.

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