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Costa Rican Old Growth Forests and Carbon Neutral Offsets

Conservation Report: Carbon Neutrality

This is an article about carbon credits and carbon neutrality written
by Michael Kaye, president of Costa Rica Expeditions. We have
borrowed the document to bring interested readers up to speed on this
relatively new and growing concept.
(from the Rancho Mastatal September Newsletter)

In October 1980, a couple of years after I started Costa Rica
Expeditions, a reporter from the Tico Times, Costa Rica’s English
language newspaper wrote an article about my fledgling enterprise.
Almost 20 years later, researching her book on eco-tourism,
Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, Martha Honey found my long
forgotten answer to a question about what made my vision of tourism
different, “Tourism should contribute to, rather than exploit (the
land)…It should be active rather than passive, emphasizing cultural
exchange rather than mere sightseeing. ” Honey called them “pioneering
words.” Almost 30 years later, having watched eco-tourism fads come
and go, I can’t decide whether to be proud, or wish I had kept my big
mouth shut. The new hot fad in sustainable travel these days is
paying offsets for our carbon footprint. That is, to compensate for
the amount our lifestyles contribute to the catastrophic largely man
made changes that are taking place in the earth’s climate we pay
money that is supposedly used to change things back.

As far as I can figure out, the way it is supposed to work is that we add up all the
carbon our vacation spews into the atmosphere. Then using math way
beyond the power of mere mortals to understand, experts calculate the
amount of money that it would take to remove the carbon that we have
put in. We then fork over this money to carbon offset brokers, and,
after covering their overhead and administrative expenses, they spend
the money on sequestering carbon by natural means, or on developing
renewable energy technologies that will, they claim, result in a
smaller carbon footprint from the same activities in the future.

A Seductive Strategy

It is a brilliantly seductive strategy. With a small manageable
financial sacrifice we “offset” (or should it be buy off) our life
styles. Any scheme that allows sustainability gurus to guiltlessly
fly around in private jets and contaminate the atmosphere much more
than the ordinary citizen has got to be worthy of our respect.
Irrational symbolic fixes for potential catastrophes are nothing new.
When I was a teenager, it was nuclear holocaust. The Russians had
just gotten the hydrogen bomb. Since the US had just snuffed 250,000
Jap(anese people) in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, everyone assumed that we were next.
In school the response that we were given were air raid drills in
which we were made to get down beneath our desks and put our heads
between our legs. After a while they must have figured that we needed
to do more to protect ourselves against a bomb that was capable of
making whole islands disappear in the South Pacific, so they told us
to turn away from the windows. That was when I must have made some
typically wise-ass remark. I can’t remember what I said, but I can
remember being sent to the principal’s office and accused of being a
communist. I feel now exactly the way I feel then. As much as I
would love to be able to pay for offsets and continue merrily on with
my highly privileged and satisfying life, I can’t help but think that
paying carbon offsets as an answer to climate change is something
like taking aspirin for cancer that has very possibly metastasized.
It might be comforting to look at it as a good start. It does
temporarily ease the pain and you do feel like you are doing
something about it, but, if it distracts you from getting the chemo
or the radiation that might really help in the long run, it is, to be
charitable, a short sighted strategy. When I asked a scientist
friend of mine who is one of the pioneers in climate change research
what he thought of offsets, he put it very succinctly, “The science
is doubtful and the social policy is worse.”

Social Policy

Let’s start with the social policy. No matter how hard you spin it,
you don’t get around the fact that essentially offsets are rich
people paying so that they can maintain their unsustainable
lifestyles. I find it particularly unfortunate that in the Travel
Industry we have been especially self-deprecating by singling out the
carbon footprint of travel to be offset.

Conferences brag about being carbon neutral by paying offsets by all
the carbon generated by the event. Travelers are encouraged to pay to
offset carbon generated by their vacations. It is as if we believed
that carbon produced by travel melts more glaciers than the carbon
that we all generate in the rest of our lives.

If our lifestyles are as unsustainable as the practice of offsets
suggests, it seems to me that we need to change our lifestyles rather
than paying to get ourselves off the hook. But if we are going to buy
offsets, we should at least buy them for our entire carbon footprint,
not just pick on travel. Finally even a cursory look at the
literature makes it pretty clear that either offsets do not have the
slightest potential to make a dent in the problem, or the threat of
climate change is highly exaggerated. Hope for this second
possibility is getting slimmer every day. When pressed offset
supporters admit that offsets per se are not effective. Then they go
on to defend offsets as the solution of last resort. After you have
done everything possible to reduce your greenhouse gas admissions,
they suggest, if you absolutely have to engage in polluting
activities, it is better than nothing to pay some money that will
used to alleviate the theory. A quick perusal at the ecommerce sites
dedicated to selling offsets shows that in almost all of them the
idea of reducing emissions is dwarfed by the aggressive promoting of
the sale of offsets. “You can balance it out. Undoing your
contribution to global warming is easier than you think. Gaia
Absolution (I made up this name) is simple, affordable and verified.
Be part of the solution.” Goes the pitch on one of the more
prominent and splashy sites. This same site also offered a volume
discount of as much as 28% on the cost for mile car offsets. The more
you drive the less you pay per mile. When I pointed this out, the CEO
of the company that owns the site said it was due to a “rounding
error,” and promised that it would be corrected immediately.

All the sites claim that the offsets are verified. I have yet to figure out
who verifies the verifiers. No place could I find an offset ecommerce
site that promotes the idea of a high enough carbon tax to actually
reduce emissions enough to make a difference, and, hopefully, but the
offset brokers out of business. Nor do I find any evidence that
offsets does anything other than help people justify high levels of
consumption. A friend of mine who works for a prominent magazine
dedicated to travel, adventure and sustainability admitted in a
conversation in which she was defending offsets that when she first
became aware of the implications of climate crisis she stopped heli-
skiing. “If I was going to ski I was going to walk to the top of the
mountain.” Than she found out about offsets and started heli-skiing
again. The other defense of offsets is that even though their effect
is minimal they sound good, because they “raise consciousness” and/or
are a “good start.” Sounds good, but the argument does not stand up
to even minimal scrutiny. Is there any reason to believe that when Al
Gore pays offsets for the carbon footprint of his 3 houses and his
private jet travel that it is a start towards him raising his
consciousness to make some real sacrifices to tighten his carbon
belt? Is their historical evidence that offsets work as an
educational tool or a good start? Did the Catholic Church selling
indulgences for sinful behavior in the middle ages serve as start for
people to learn to sin less or did it just encourage them to keep
sinning, while buying them less time in purgatory? I am not saying
here that selling indulgences for rape and pillage is the moral
equivalent to selling offsets for a quick getaway to Cancun. But it
is in the same spirit. I am also not saying that our lifestyles are
sinful. My view is that rather than being sinful, we are human. And
being human we are not saints. Al Gore does not fly around private
jets because he is bad; he flies around in private jets because he
can afford to—as would I.

It seems to me hypocritical to criticize Al Gore for using private jets unless you have enough money to be able to do so and do not. But it also seems to me that a regime that
allows the most prominent spokesman in the US for doing something
about climate change to have an extraordinarily large carbon
footprint in the long run is bound to breed more cynicism about
sustainability than converts, no matter how effective it is in the
short run. What I am saying is that the cause of sustainability and
dealing with the impacts of climate crisis would be much better
served if we stopped trying to hoodwink ourselves and others into
thinking we can offset our carbon footprints. If we feel guilty about
our carbon footprints we should reduce them or get over our guilt. We
can’t fool the glaciers into melting less. What’s more, all of the
above assumes that the money that received from the offset buyers is
spent honestly. That is a hopelessly optimistic assumption.

While there must be instances in which the money is being honestly spent on
projects that promise to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,
there also must be many other instances in which to put it bluntly
the money is being ripped off.

Costa Rica

In a way even more pernicious than the out and out rip offs is offset
money going to good causes dishonestly represented. An example of
this is that the majority of the money spent for offsets in Costa
Rica is used to protect old growth forest in parks and reserves. It
is logical that it should be this way. Costa Rica is famous for
protecting old growth tropical forests and an impressive percentage
of the national territory is under protection.

Furthermore maintaining old growth forest is a very worthy cause.
There is one small problem. Old growth tropical forests are carbon
neutral; they do not offset any carbon. Reforestation of pastures
sequesters carbon, but in Costa Rica very little of the carbon offset
money goes into reforestation, because the owners of the pastures are
dispersed and not connected to the international networks that dole
out the offset money. Also, in many cases the money for offsets is
not enough to reforest a pasture. It is only enough to protect a
forest that you are going to protect anyway. Gotta pay those
administrative and marketing costs. What you do get with offsets is
a whole industry with a vested interest against carbon taxes that
would be high enough to actually reduce the amount of carbon we
generate. As I pointed out above, with a high carbon tax, the offset
brokers are going to have to find other work. While carbon offsets
do not get you a whole lot of sustainability, what they do get you is
hype. Google Carbon Neutral and you get 1,930,000 results.
Costa Rica’s Nature Air, Silverjet and Netjets
all claim to be the world’s first carbon neutral aviation company. I
lost count at 25 “first” carbon neutral conferences. All through the
magic of offsets. By and large the media reports all this with a
straight face.

Media Darlings

Right now carbon neutrality through offsets is a media darling. Years
ago a week did not go by when some journalist did not ask me up about
what we were doing to support local communities. Now the media
wouldn’t notice if we were running a white slavery operation in a
local community as long as it was carbon neutral. Media darlings
have a way of becoming media goats. Almost certainly in my view the
press is going to start to investigate the most ridiculous claims and
how the money is spent. They will concentrate on the worse abuses and
tar good and bad with the same brush. As somebody said, “The new
yellow journalism is green.”

Science

Which brings me to the science: Every responsible scientist that I
can find believes that the climate is changing, and that on balance
the impacts will be more or less catastrophic. As time goes on, the
direr the predictions of responsible mainstream scientists. The most
pessimistic, people like James Lovelock, go so far as to contemplate
the possibility that eventually climate change will threaten
civilization, as we know it. There is slightly less agreement about
the relative roles of man-made factors and natural cycles, but the
great preponderance of evidence is that human kind has played a
decisive and negative role especially by the production and releasing
of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Up until this point the
picture is pretty clear, but as soon as we get to where in the cycle
we are now, and what we should be doing about it, the clarity
dissolves. My friend Robert Aglow won an Emmy for producing a
documentary on climate change for ABC news some12 years ago. He has
been avidly following the topic ever since. In a recent email he gave
me his “dispassionate” take in on where the science stands
now, “There is no way to determine if we are at a tipping point, or
tipping points because the best scientists in the world can’t predict
exactly how or when the various positive feedback scenarios (they
call them positive feedback which is misleading, of course, since
they have very negative effects) they are beginning to concentrate on
will play out.”

So if this is the case what do we do? Here’s Aglow again. “So to
your question of whether we build dykes and floating cities and the
rest or come up with real alternative fuel sources and sustainable
living models, the answer is that both are necessary simultaneously. ”

Looking at the Problem

In my view it is not so much a matter of what to do about the problem
as how to look at the problem. When we dedicate time and treasure to
sustainability we are not buying sustainability in the sense that
when we buy a car we get a car. Way before the carbon neutrality
bandwagon, money and time spent on sustainability was an investment,
not a purchase. And investment intrinsically means risk. Invest in
eliminating DDT maybe we get non-toxic produce and mother’s milk;
maybe we get 800,000 deaths from malaria. In this case we got both.
Since we are talking about investing, the golden rules about
investing apply: Above all, diversify among high risk/high return and
tried and true initiatives. Beware of bubbles and bandwagons. If
everybody bets on the same thing you get a bubble. The great offset
fever that we are witnessing at the moment with everybody racing to
be the first or the biggest carbon neutral this or carbon neutral
that is the sustainability equivalent of the .com bubble of the
nineties and the housing bubble that is in the process of bursting at
the moment. Bubbles always burst. Above all diversify. The most
aggressive sustainability investors will want to make massive
investments in carbon neutrality. At the same time it is still
worthwhile and vital to continue to protect wildlife and wildlands —
biodiversity will always be important whatever happens with the
climate. For some investing to protect an important work of art or
architecture will still be the right answer. We can’t be expected to
do a good job with nature if we neglect the great works of man.
Finally by all means helping local communities support themselves and
become self-sufficient is still the lynch pin of sustainability in
the developing world — and often the weak link. If the dire
predictions of climate change play out as many of us fear, local
communities will be more vulnerable than ever. In short (and in my
personal opinion) anything but offsets. Of course if you would have
bought indulgences in the middle ages, buy offsets now. The offset
brokers gotta live too—and it just might get you some good
press … for a while.

Addendum

Since I first wrote this a few weeks ago, I have become increasingly
aware of something more troubling then the dubious science and social
policy. That is a concerted effort to stifle dissent with zeal worthy
of the Bush administration. Responsible critics of offsets like Bjorn
Lomborg the Danish environmentalist are vilified. I am not sure
whether this intolerance of dissent is due the amount of money there
is to be made with offsets of political correctness. I suspect both.
Several people have told me in private that they agree with my views
on offsets, but would not say so in public. I asked one of them why
not and he told me that he lived in Berkeley.

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