Friday, August 28, 2009

Concerning Rachel Wood's Costa Rica Piece

Read the original article here

This is an excellent corrective, much appreciated, so don’t take the following comments as scholarly nit-pickings. But a few points.

One, the NEF study actually put Costa Rica’s ecological footprint–not its carbon footprint–above the sustainable level in terms of global per-capita hectares. In their study, the NEF researchers themselves admit that the measuring system is probably overly-generous to humanity [perversely, then, anti-generous in a funny way], not allowing for how much of the biosphere needs to be totally fallow in order for it to re-generate. I don’t mean to suggest that you wrote the contrary, but someone could get that impression.

Two, tree-farming construed in its most generous terms is a variant of carbon-farming, e.g. taking carbon out of atmospheric circulation and placing it into the biosphere. As part of a systematic approach to carbon draw-down, such efforts can be effective. Planting trees is less effective than building up carbon reserves in the soil through agro-ecological practices, but one thing you seem to miss is that planting trees can actually allay or stop desertification–the most extreme form of soil destruction. I can’t cite chapter and verse, but as an integrated approach, converting a given patch of land from, say, an input-heavy agricultural production unit ["farm" is the euphemism we use for such chemical food factories, I think] or brown-lot to forested land or pasture saps a great deal of carbon from the atmosphere and locks it in both biomass above ground–where it may be vulnerable–or below-ground, where it often isn’t. Soil’s total carbon-storage capacity is unknown, but far higher than the amount of carbon it currently holds. The issue isn’t merely “soil quality,” as you put it, but soil’s ability to draw-down carbon from the atmosphere.

Three, obviously, this shouldn’t be taken to mean industrial trash-tree plantations are defensible. They’re ecologically indefensible, and I’ve seen nothing to the contrary. In a similar vein, the REDD programs are enormously flawed, often privatizing indigenous or communal land for the purposes of carbon “offsets.”

Four, the amount of carbon the industrial revolution added to the atmosphere is usually measured starting at c. 1750, and you’re correct when you note that the majority of that carbon is the result of the burning of fossil fuels. However, there’s a bit more to the story. It’s not clear to what extent massive desertification is a “natural” occurrence; the destruction of Mesopotamia’s fertility essentially ripped the carbon from the soil and dumped it into the atmosphere. This may be the case in many deserts across the world. Merely restoring as much carbon as we can to the ground through re-vegetation or re-forestation schemes could put a great deal of that carbon back where it belongs. While that wouldn’t have an effect on the fossil-fuel-based carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, it would draw down carbon. I’m unaware of efforts to measure the effects of desertification or pre-industrial but-intensive farming practices on ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but I’m sure there’s some effort to do so.

Five, I expect you’ll respond, rightly, that this is a dangerous path to go down–because such reversals of what are effectively pre-industrial carbon emissions [but remember the Dust Bowl] can be used to offset current industrial carbon emissions, thereby staving off the point at which we need to make fundamental changes in the political economy of energy consumption in Western industrialized countries. That’s correct–it’s a dangerous path to go down. But we will need to both draw-down current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide as well as radically reduce emissions levels to avoid the worst. I don’t think it’s either/or. The offset issue is in that sense a red-herring. Perhaps offsets can be made to work, perhaps not. Personally, I suspect the latter. But simply because carbon offsets are used to avoid necessary changes in our energy and industrial systems doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to create incentives to pull carbon from the atmosphere via bio-mass. Such incentives shouldn’t be the “offset” systems. Pulling carbon into soil or soil-based biomass has excellent effects for soil fertility and productivity, and can massively add to farmers’ outputs–agro-ecology is then its own incentive, which is as it should be.

I don’t mean to suggest that you’re unaware of all this. You write, “the idea of offsets could be telling society a dangerous lie: that current consumption patterns are sustainable, and that businesses can continue more or less normally. This idea is highly contrary to the real goal, which should be to permanently shift the world economy away from its addiction to fossil fuels,” which I agree with. But as a fellow young writer, you’ll agree, too that we’re running out of time. The permanent shift has to go hand-in-hand with an effort to turn the biosphere into a carbon-farm. That idea is getting short-shrift, and it looks like Costa Rica’s efforts are a pretty pallid version of the more substantive effort that I’d like to see, perhaps so much so as to be worse-than-useless. But the idea behind bio-mass based carbon cultivation shouldn’t be thrown out along with Costa Rica’s misrepresentations of its own efforts.


1 comment:

David said...

I thought Rachel Wood's piece was excellent. I want to point out, however, that there are abundant reasons for attempting reforestation in Costa Rica. Deforestation has been intense since my first visit in 1961. Wildlife will benefit from reforestation, especially if done with native species. Furthermore, land needs stabilization and watersheds need protection. And, by the way,there will be the additional CO2 benefit. I have tremendous admiration for what is being attempted in Costa Rica. There are many truly dedicated CR citizens worked hard to make carbon neutrality a reality and they are making remarkable progress in several important areas. In my experience Costa Ricans welcome constructive criticism.