Talking Past Each Other: Language on Carbon Forestry and Offsets

James Bailey mentioned how hard it is to describe anything in a meaningful way in 300 words. I’ve found Twitter to be an extreme extension of that (280 characters?), though many times you can dig down and ask researcher Tweeters questions and they will respond.. so I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Twitter (I tweet as ForestMaven). Too often, though, in my experience, it’s where people say mean things to and about other people and ideas. Perhaps scarier is the way complex ideas can get reduced to snarky one liners.

One of my pet projects is to try to explain to people the concept that I don’t think you can really understand land use and practices without understanding people who make the decisions, their views, and the physical and technological possibilities. But nowadays so many people project land use changes based on satellite data and assumptions about what people might do. For some reason, these quantified assumptions seem to be cooler science than say, social science studies of what farmers do, or understanding the physical and technological envelopes in which they operate.

Anyway, to that end, I follow Ted Nordhaus (and other folks) of The Breakthrough Institute. The other day Nordhaus retweeted 

“Protecting trees, as habitat, shade, and a source of life, is a good thing; a very good thing. Carbon forestry, conversely, is a con game, and a cynical one even bad standards of the best corporate grifters.” from a fellow named Paul Robbins.

What, might you ask, is “carbon forestry”? It’s undefined so it’s easy to question it, as no one really knows what it is. If he really meant “offsets”, why not just say that?  And who is Paul Robbins? Apparently he’s the Director of the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin.

In 2011, a bunch of knowledgeable folks (Malmsheimer et al.)  wrote a paper called “Managing Forests because Carbon Matters: Integrating Energy, Products, and Land Management Policy” and published it in the Journal of Forestry. Here’s a link.

In the abstract, they say

“The value of carbon credits generated by forest carbon offset projects differs dramatically, depending on the sets of carbon pools allowed by the protocol and baseline employed. The costs associated with establishing and maintaining offset projects depend largely on the protocols’ specifics. Measurement challenges and relatively high transaction costs needed for forest carbon offsets warrant consideration of other policies that promote climate benefits from forests and forest products but do not require project-specific accounting.”

So it seems like many agree that offsets (from forests) are not a good idea. In the humble world of doing our forest Climate Action Plans in the early 2010’s, we thought about integrating mitigation and adaptation concerns in various ways, planting trees, restoring riparian areas, and so on. I’m hoping that in the great debate of “think tank” climate change, where the titan opinion leaders clash, our efforts to manage forests considering carbon won’t be mooshed together with offsets and thereby dissed.

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