The Forest for the Trees

White SpruceIt seems to me that the ongoing debate about global warming has less to do with the science and more to do with businesses and countries lacking the willpower to do anything about it. Even President George Bush admitted that there has been significant warming on the planet in the last 150 years, mainly due to increased greenhouse gas emissions such as methane and carbon dioxide. But his solution, and the solution of so many energy companies is to build nuclear fusion and fission power plants. Sure, they pollute less, but their risks far outweigh their benefit. Meltdowns, terrorism, and disposal are all issues that haven’t been solved yet, though they’d like to tell you otherwise.

The most commonly talked about global solution is the Kyoto protocol which seeks to cap each country’s greenhouse emissions to some absurdly arbitrary “1990 levels.” Because this would stifle energy companies or force them to retrofit or rebuild their power generation stations, many countries have refused to sign this treaty (the US being a prime example.) In order to revive this dead treaty they are now talking about bartering forests and land. The idea is that if you have more trees and open space in your country per capita, then your country should be allowed to emit more greenhouse gases because the trees will hence absorb it. This is also ludicrous because a large country like the US will then be able to pollute much more per capita than say a crowded country like Japan.

Add to the mess the recent realization that plants, in normal respiration, release methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas. Add to this the methane hydrates, frozen chunks of methane gas deep in the sea that might, with sufficient warming, release suddenly and in a great bubble, an enormous amount of a potent greenhouse gas. Add to this the fact that much of the warming that might have already occurred has been blocked, at least partially, by increased particulate emissions, a.k.a. soot, and that as our automobiles and factories actually get cleaner the warming will increase because the already existing greenhouse gases will now tip the scale in the other direction without the cooling effect of soot.

Lets talk about proposed solutions:

We already said Kyoto was dead on arrival.  No way are the fat-cats of the global economies ever going to agree to anything that limits their ability to do business.

Carbon sequestration: the idea is that we pump huge amounts of CO2 into caves or under the sea and literally strip it out of the air.  Nevermind if this is actually possible or feasible.  This is equivalent to throwing wood on a burning house.  It merely allows us to keep emitting greenhouse gases indefinitely which, in this author’s opinion, is ignoring the problem.  Plus it would be enormously expensive.

Greenhouse gas reduction: this is already happening.  By burning fossil fuels, greenhouse gases will be released.  But engineers don’t want power plants to be inefficient.  They want to get the most from their fuel, and hence, the most energy per dollar spent.  The new power plants are extremely efficient, emitting far less greenhouse gases than their predecessors.  The problem is that the population is increasing rapidly and this greenhouse reduction is offset by the number of increasing power plants.  The other thing we are doing is the introduction of hybrid cars into mass transit.  Besides energy production, the automobile is the second biggest producer of greenhouse gas.  However, car use is increasing worldwide.  (Not to mention the recent wave of inefficient SUV purchases in the US this last decade.)  So more efficient cars are reducing  emissions and particulate pollution, but this is being offset by the increased number of cars and also what we said above: the soot was actually slowing global warming.  With less soot, we will see more warming.

Now, these are all globally minded solutions, geared towards large economies and cultures who depend heavily on a modern industrial society.  But I believe such solutions are doomed to fail if only because people do not willfully limit their actions unless there are dire consequences, and though scientists are predicting such consequences, none of us has really seen it first hand, and so it seems like political doublespeak and manipulation and, well, we just want to put the whole family in our SUV and go to the beach.  What right does the government have to tell us we can’t?

My solution, if a bit naive, is much simpler, much closer to home.  When I see huge tracts of forests being cut down to make way for houses (and this is happening everywhere in every country), I see carbon sinks being destroyed.  Sure, the lumber will hold the carbon for a few centuries, but what about the growing plants?  They store large amounts of carbon in their tissues as they grow.  Okay here goes:

First, find a list of native trees for your region which absorb and hold the most carbon dioxide per area.  Then, and here’s the kicker, with very little government work, just the amount of time it takes to pass a bill into law, do the following tax incentives:

o) Planting trees on your property, especially those with high carbon absorption, will give you a large tax credit.

o) Destroying trees on your property, especially those with high carbon absorption, will have no credit or even a tax burden.

It sounds simple and it is.  Reward people for planting trees.  We give people tax breaks for giving to charity, for donating books to libraries, so why not for planting trees?  If there are approximately 300 million Americans and one out of every three planted a tree, that would add 100 million new trees to the planet.  This link (never mind the misspellings in the question) does the math better than I can, but I believe this might be a simpler (and one obvious tool in a swiss army knife of possibilities) solution.

Opinions?