Sunday, February 27, 2022

Indulging Reforestation

As a child in a devout Catholic household I was intrigued by “Indulgences,” a way for sinners to avoid penalties in the afterlife by paying a fee commensurate with their bad deeds. This was years before Heaven went digital, of course, and as a youngster I assumed these bookkeeping adjustments were made in such a way that God didn’t notice the erasure marks in the Eternal Ledger.

When I first heard the phrase “carbon offsets” it reminded me of the practice of Indulgences – if you pay enough cash you can fly your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun, and through some kind of accounting magic, not emit a speck of CO2. Someone would instantly plant a forest, pump carbon into a deep ocean trench, or build a wind farm for you.

Apparently I’m too cynical at times, because carbon offsets are genuine. But there are limitations. In a July 2021 Denzeen article, Fredrika Klarén, who runs the Sustainability Division at the Chinese electric-car maker Polestar, says “It is impossible to get down to zero [CO2 emissions] with offsets alone.”

One of the most popular and easily understood ways to offset carbon emissions is to plant trees. If you buy a certain product, the manufacturer will plant X number of trees so you can indulge in your acquisition without guilt. I like the idea of my purchases causing trees to be planted, a job with which I am quite familiar.

However, it turns out that afforestation (the planting of “new” forests) is seldom a good way to sequester carbon. It takes a new seedling about ten years just to break even from the energy it took to have it planted, and even more time to offset the early management of young forest stands. How long before a forest begins to sequester carbon in a meaningful way?

Paul Gambrill, CEO of The Nori Carbon Removal Marketplace told Denzeen that “Planting trees is probably the most difficult potential method from a measurement and verification perspective. Forests need to have a permanence of 100 years to be effective carbon stores.” Wow. It’s going to take a lot of Dannon-yogurt centenarians to manage these offsets properly. This is certainly another strong argument to preserve old-growth forests and to support conservation easements and land trusts as ways of protecting woodlands.

Before too many people jump off the afforestation bandwagon, though, we should keep in mind that there are loads of other good reasons to plant trees. Forests prevent erosion, conserve water, protect fisheries, filter particulate air pollution, transform and neutralize gaseous contaminants, safeguard biodiversity, and provide us with priceless cultural and spiritual benefits. And we can actually help lower the age at which forests become effective at reversing CO2 concentrations.

Some log homes in Scandinavia date back 600 years or more, yet the average lifespan of wood used in North American construction today is around forty years – then it goes right into a landfill. Shoddy work plays a part in that, to be sure, but the main reason is short-sighted urban and suburban planning.

With few exceptions, demolished homes are splintered using a grapple boom for expediency, and then the whole mess gets trucked to a landfill. Tearing down homes to build high-density housing might be excused on occasion, but all too often, larger single-family units are the result. This practice needs to be curtailed. No one seems to like regulation, yet that’s the only thing that brought about fire-safety standards and cars whose gas tanks don’t blow up, and put an end to child labor and forced unpaid overtime in this country. Sometimes laws are necessary.

If we can find ways to encourage the salvage and reuse of building materials by way of incentives, and restrict wantonly wasteful practices through local by-laws and other legal means, we can do as much good as if we plant acres of forests. Let’s keep indulging carbon offsets, but look for other ways of mitigating the catastrophic effects of climate change.

Paul Hetzler is an ISA Certified Arborist who is saving up to offset a possible future Learjet purchase. Thanks to wood-wizard Laurent Dubois (https://www.mclapeche.com/) for sparking another cool idea.

Related Stories


Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.

You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World




25 Responses

  1. Big Burly says:

    Paul, as always a good read and insight. Buy the LearJet — the experience will be memorable.

  2. JB says:

    Thanks for another great article. Governments and corporations worldwide are “barking up the wrong tree” with artificial reforestation and afforestation. For the most part, trees will plant themselves (where they belong at least)–if we let them. Large-scale tree planting, of natives or exotics alike, is not only incapable of offsetting global carbon emissions, it interferes with biodiversity and ecosystem functioning on very, very long timescales and leaves the forests of the future less capable of weathering the triple threat of climate change, invasive species and anthropogenic disturbance. The ubiquitous loss of natural forest is arguably a much greater existential threat to future humanity than fossil fuel-based carbon emissions, in the long run.

    Holl, Karen D., and Pedro HS Brancalion. “Tree planting is not a simple solution.” Science 368.6491 (2020): 580-581.
    Hassan, Abeer, Lee Roberts, and Kimberly Rodger. “Corporate accountability for biodiversity and species extinction: Evidence from organisations reporting on their impacts on nature.” Business Strategy and the Environment (2021).
    Aerts, Raf, and Olivier Honnay. “Forest restoration, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.” BMC ecology 11.1 (2011): 1-10.
    Di Sacco, Alice, et al. “Ten golden rules for reforestation to optimize carbon sequestration, biodiversity recovery and livelihood benefits.” Global Change Biology 27.7 (2021): 1328-1348.
    Campbell, Robert K., and Frank C. Sorensen. “Genetic implications of nursery practices.” Forestry nursery manual: production of bareroot seedlings. Springer, Dordrecht, 1984. 183-191.
    …Etcetera…

  3. geogymn says:

    Paul,
    Good thoughts but the labor cost to render construction debris reusable will always be higher than purchasing new materials in all but the most rare occasion.
    I agree that our best hope is retaining standing forest.

  4. Bill Ott says:

    Ah, now I feel justified in buying that new gas powered chainsaw and woodchipper.

  5. Alan Fisher says:

    Going “green” is definitely not an easy project to solve. Most of us are just too short sighted to see the bigger picture. If we could see the bigger picture, we most likely would resist the change necessary to prevent damage. Some would believe that privilege makes themselves immune to the need to change. Some resist change because it took them too much time and energy to get to the higher standard they saw others enjoying. The paradigm is redirected by false claims of greener pastures all too often. If we take a realistic look at what is currently defined as green we find that all too often the bigger picture shows it is false. How often do we just push the problem further down the road and into someone else’s back yard? What happens when we create thousands of acres of solar panels and wind turbans without the realistic means of salvage? When was the last time an LED bulb actually lasted the time promised? Have you disassembled a LED light bulb? There is a lot more involved than just a tungsten filament and what do you suppose the carbon footprint of manufacturing really is? I don’t profess that I have the answers, but I can still see the difference between subjective and objective reason. Without some new technology that actually doesn’t harm the environment, there is probably only one way to turn back the environmental clock, go dark at night, go hot in the summer, go cold in the winter and go hungry if not growing your own food. Old forest seems to regulate surface temperature and store carbon. Young, short lived brush lots don’t do much in the long run as they die, rot and return carbon to the atmosphere. Would we have to resurface the planet with some kind of tree that is resistant to invasive species and death? I think most of us can recognize that it took the world environment millions of years to go through the changes necessary to become somewhat stabilized. It did this without the help or interference of the human species. Even so it had times that rapid change had devastating ramifications. A meteor strike or a close encounter, a series of volcanic eruptions, a solar burst all could rearrange the environment. Today we see man as the impetus of rapid change and destruction of a stable environment. We react, it’s called progress…. or is it?

    • JB says:

      Alan, I think what you’re referring to is the all-too-common subscription to the “Environmental Kuznets Curve” hypothesis, which posits that industrialization initially increases environmental degradation (pollution, deforestation), until technological advancement eventually results in environmental recovery. Reforestation pundits are the perfect embodiment of the Kuznetsian paradigm. The whole ideology is deeply flawed, because, as you say, it does not account for the complexity of ecosystem functioning and ecosystem services–nor does it account for the intricate feedback loops shared  between pollution, deforestation, climate change, biodiversity loss and the latency periods before environmental debts manifest themselves. For example, on paper, forest cover for North America has been fairly stable in recent history (despite massive losses in global forest), but the losses in ecological integrity (biodiversity loss combined with adventive and invasive species introductions) have been staggering. Rather than addressing the problem, the rise of artificial reforestation has contributed to the disparity (especially globally).

      As for the future, I adopt an anti-Kuznetsian outlook: in the long-term, industrialization must result not in environmental recovery and technological deflation, but in runaway inequality caused by resource degradation and scarcity (quality of life will improve for the few reciprocally with its decline for the many).

      The only pathway for averting this is much along the lines of what Hetzler mentions: use less. Rather than altering resource use through displacement and diversion whilst preserving the economic paradigm, we need to acknowledge that the paradigm is socially and environmentally unsustainable. Susan asks if, then, we should all be living in Soviet-style Khrushchyovka. In reality, using less would look more akin to Western European-style mixed-use developments and land-use planning. Of all of the obstacles standing in the way of widespread adoption of these concepts, the largest is purely ideological: “less is more” has never been an easy concept for the American mind to grasp.

  6. Bob Meyer says:

    Laws & regulations, those nasty things that so many Americans think interfere with their “freedom” …. When will we grow up to realize that a society needs these things for the greater good of society.. all of us. Here’s hoping because the future of our children and beyond depend on it.

  7. Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

    Very nice Paul, thank you! Have you read Richard Powers’s “The Overstory” ? One of the many interconnected plots covers these ideas wonderfully.

    Indeed reforestation has been very greenwashed, but I strongly agree that this doesn’t excuse us from planting more trees, as many as we can. There are just too many good reasons to do so. 😀

  8. Susan says:

    So, Paul, do YOU live in a Soviet style 3 room apartment concrete high rise?

  9. JT says:

    Concrete is not a good alternative for wood. It produces 8% of global CO2 emissions from what I have read.

  10. louis curth says:

    I just keep coming back to my long ago days at Paul Smith’s when Prof. Steve Simpson’s explained to us in his wildlife management course that there is a finite limit to the amount of wildlife that can survive in a given area. It is called the carrying capacity of the land, and it applies just as much to humans as to any other animal.

    How any rational person can defend our bloated human population that should be counted in millions – not billions as we have now – is beyond me, and yet even to even discuss overpopulation is politically incorrect and risks the wrath of society.

    Isn’t it time for a reality check?

  11. louis curth says:

    Correction: The name of our PSC professor was Steve Simkins. Please forgive an old man’s fading memory.

    By the way, should anyone care, the UN estimates that the world population in 2022 is at 7,953,952,577. By 2050, the population is expected to increase by around 25% to a total world population of 9,900,000,000. How many more carbon offsets is that?

    • JB says:

      louis,
      I’ll admit, I tried to look up your wise professor, “Steve Simpson”, to no avail. 🙂 It is indeed becoming increasingly diificult to find any leader, scientific or otherwise, who is willing to openly acknowledge the overpopulation crisis. But in 1992 and subsequently in 2017, more than 17,000 signatories backed the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” notices (the second one: https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/12/1026/4605229%20), stating just what you have about the dire threat posed by overpopulation to our planet. The updated 2020 version scarcely mentions overpopulation at all (https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/70/1/8/5610806), despite the fact that population only continues to rise. The world becomes a scary place when we–including our scientific establishment–chooses Kuznets over Malthus, economy over humanity and environment.

  12. louis curth says:

    Thank you JB for responding. I am very appreciative to the Almanack/Explorer for offering us a community based place to share our views, and to Melissa, who’s light editorial touch keeps all our conversations civil.

    My life experiences suggest that if our young people are to have any hope whatsoever of fixing the mess we have made of our earthly home, it has to start at the local level . That is where working people have the best chance of success, and it’s a long shot at best. We need to take away the punch bowl from the super rich and corporate elites and kick out the sycophant politicians that sustain them. We government that works for the benefit of all people and for a healthy natural world that future generations can depend upon to survive.

    • JB says:

      Louis, I couldn’t agree more that it all must begin at the local level and that the Adirondack Almanack is truly an excellent example of this. Few people in America realize how abhorrent our own society is in this respect–few can rival our nationalistic, tumultuous relationship with the land. North America has the most urbanized population in the world, and yet the environmental situations in our urban and rural places alike are some of the worst.

      As places as diverse as Switzerland and Southeast Asia, China and the Congo Basin, can testify, grassroots activism and community-based land management hold the ultimate keys to sustainability, even if these kinds of traditions are now under threat everywhere. While the dichotomy between environment and humanity is a false one, the current knee-jerk reactions to that dichotomy where it is most developed, in the Anglosphere, are only perpetuating it. Rather than settling for superficial substitutes–eco-escapism (ecotourism and urban rustication) and the back-to-nature social media lifestyle brand–we need to do the difficult work of establishing concrete and deeply-rooted relationships between people and place again.

      I recently watched Dr. Kimmerer speak–whom I had admittedly viewed with skepticism as yet another lofty popular personality–and someone asked the question of how people living in cities can “connect to nature”. Her response, as an authentic human being, I found unexpectedly reassuring: Even in cities, she said (paraphrasing), there nature is; people just need to change their own perspectives and relationships with the world to see it.

      This, in my opinion, is a perfect example of the type of exchange that we need more of: a gentle, nuanced overturning of class-fueled dichotomies via a return to solid common ground, figuratively and literally. And the more diverse the coalitions that we can build–and make no mistake that in using the term “diverse”, I include even the super-wealthy–the more vastly and securely that common ground is protected. The Adirondack Park is the exemplar extraordinaire of the potential greatness that can be achieved by unexpected coalitions (between ultra-wealthy sophisticates, grassroots environmentalists, local residents)—and also how quickly things can fall apart when those coalitions are formalized into something else altogether.

      I guess that this brings us back to your original question: Is it simply too late for a return grassroots? …And where would that leave us? …A conversation for a later time, maybe. As always, it’s a pleasure to engage in these discussions here.

  13. louis curth says:

    I would say JB, that you have spelled it out very well for anyone who takes the time to ponder the looming disaster that we face. But take note of how little reader response there is to this topic. Maybe it is just too depressing for my generation to face, so they have accepted defeat, and just let their grandchildren be thrown under the environmental bus.

    Having been part of the amazing grassroots support for that first Earth Day back in 1970, I guess I am naive enough to think we still have a chance, but it has to happen now with real change in our local communities. We haven’t got the time to keep on hating each other for our differences. All our energy needs to go into building purposeful communities and replacing the politicians who have sold us out.

    We have one valuable tool at our disposal and that is the common sense that most of us would suspect is a gift from God or our loving mothers. Wherever it comes from, we should put it to maximum use to help us discern the real motives of politicians lies, their selective silence and all the rest of their self-serving phony baloney. That just might give Earth and the kids one last chance…

  14. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Louis Curth says: “How any rational person can defend our bloated human population that should be counted in millions – not billions as we have now – is beyond me, and yet to even discuss overpopulation is politically incorrect and risks the wrath of society.”

    With ‘Roe Vs Wade’ on the chopping block here in this great country of ours, just think how many more people there will be Louis! Or not? Far right, ultra-conservative Columbia just decriminalized abortion. Maybe this will put a check, or balance out temporarily, far right extremist America’s actions if “Roe..” is overturned.

  15. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “if our young people are to have any hope whatsoever of fixing the mess we have made of our earthly home, it has to start at the local level.”

    Maybe Louis! A good start would be for those in charge to start talking about the real issues, such as overpopulation, and destruction of ecosystems, etc., etc. There’s so much! One thing for sure, and which I am always in thought of….is what remains of the species on this planet. We should have started preserving what is left twenty years ago. We haven’t started! We’re not even talking about it, and at the same time all is up for grabs…the Arctic, our National Parks, this or that micro-ecosystem to developers. Every woodlot and field is important in my book, and the bigger they are the more important they are. As the old Indians used to say, “When you destroy nature you destroy man too” or some words to that effect. Look at us! Look at all of the dysfunction, the violence, the family unit falling apart, the division…. Them Indians knew what they were talking about.

  16. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “One of the most popular and easily understood ways to offset carbon emissions is to plant trees.”

    The best way to offset carbon emissions is to leave the forests and woodlands intact, stop chopping them up! Another way to possibly slow down the inevitable would be to shut your engines off when you’re car is parked. To think that maybe we can get another twenty years out of this ecosystem Earth…..if those millions of unenlightened would just turn their ignitions off when they’re parked outside McDonalds or Walmart or……

  17. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “This, in my opinion, is a perfect example of the type of exchange that we need more of: a gentle, nuanced overturning of class-fueled dichotomies via a return to solid common ground, figuratively and literally.”

    I like and respect your thinking JB, and your semi optimism, but you know as well as I do that the only hope for mankind is if a mass enlightenment takes place, some big event which will suddenly instill upon the ethos of society ‘conversion.’ We’re long overdue and one can only hope that this transformation is more sooner than late. I heard that Putin was hinting at the deployment of nukes if need be….. Maybe it is too late but I still like your semi optimism.

  18. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Bob Meyer says: “Laws & regulations, those nasty things that so many Americans think interfere with their “freedom” …. When will we grow up to realize that a society needs these things for the greater good of society.. all of us. Here’s hoping because the future of our children and beyond depend on it.”

    Keep on hoping Bob, but don’t hold your breath. Every ‘thing’ has been politicized. You got the one party that really tries to steer us in a good direction but the other party obstructs them to no end because political football is all they know. The smell of oil whets their appetite more than does the smell of roses. Whenever any ‘thing’ for ‘the greater good’ is brought up, the obstructionists say “Up yours” which their constituency just flocks to because…..well, because sheep’s flock, and the obstructionists know it. Politics, not “We the people.” They don’t believe in the greater good, it’s all about them, that pitiful image in the mirror!  

    Now we possibly have nuclear war on our doorstep!  I suppose all these issues that concern us regards the Adirondacks and other sacred havens with soon be moot all of them….unless a miracle comes hither.

    • Bob Meyer says:

      Charlie,
      Unfortunately your summation of the present state of affairs is accurate. The history of our nation is one of cycles of progress and regress. Let’s hope for a move toward enlightened policy and action before it’s too late [whatever that means, oh dear]. Otherwise our descendants will bear the possibly untenable costs.

  19. JB says:

    Charlie and Louis, unfortunately, we seem to lack the God-given or cultural common sense that you both write about to achieve the admirable goal of universal salvation for humanity, or even to accept defeat. But, counterintuitively, I think that there is a difference between coalition-building and universal consensus.

    Despite appearances, we cannot actually be trapped in an endless media-war for the unattainable ideal of the latter. Eventually, we will be forced into coalitions that work to preserve a livable planet, but those coalitions will not include those who are unwilling to embody the required humility to let go of unsustainable ideologies. If preservation of the dual, mutually-exclusive status quos of egalitarianism and overpopulation remains a mainstream goal, then this unfortunately will only serve to ensure the maximum possible amount of inequality and human suffering.

    And since we are already faced with the reality of overpopulation, we must conclude that the egalitarian train has already left the station (maybe common sense has left with it?). We could all blame the ticketmaster or the conductor, but they are both waiting around with tickets in hand for a salvation that will never come, packed in right beside the crowded rest of us. Egalitarians immediately busy themselves with the intellectual task of planting their last seeds in cracks between the concrete. Indigenous people and those of faith have long since taken to the ancient solace of prayer and song circles. Later, all of the seeds abandoned in the spirit of egalitarianism have been ground to dust by hungry wanderers and raging storms, before they could have grown to bear fruit. But those who have remained steady and strong together, protecting each other and their seeds of tradition, will rise to meet the new day.

  20. louis curth says:

    JB, your fine analysis is taxing my creaky old gray cells which is probably a good thing at my age.

    As for common sense, I think it is still there for most of us, but we tend to limit its application to buying new vacuum cleaners instead of using it to see through the mesmerizing words of our modern day false prophets (and lying politicians). ( remember Rev.Jim Jones?).

    I do agree with you on the difference between coalition-building and universal consensus. I’ve seen coalition building achieve good results all through my life, whereas universal consensus is a goal to aim for but will always be unachievable.

    Then there is that wonderful verbal picture you paint in closing JB, I get the feeling that all of us who love this special place (the Adirondack region) are a version of that picture. Many of us, including me, are “refugees” who fled long ago from the destruction of nature elsewhere. Others still come here on weekends and vacations for the same reason. All of us bring our seeds of tradition, and we do in our own way, try to protect each other and preserve this beautiful place for as many new days as we can have before the larger world closes in on our Adirondack refuge and overwhelms us.

    Also, thank you Charlie Stehlin, from a kindred soul who shares your forthright sentiments. We need millions more men and women with that worldview.

  21. Boreas says:

    There is some good content in this publication regarding what private landowners should do to encourage the breeding of avian species when considering private forest management. Good reading for all.

    https://ny.audubon.org/sites/default/files/free_guide_landowners_manage_forest_for_birds_new_york.pdf

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Wait, before you go,

sign up for news updates from the Adirondack Almanack!