GE Trees and Global Warming: The Myth of Carbon Offset Forestry

Originally posted by STOP GE Trees Campaign Page. lso posted by NWRage.org in early 2000s


by Anne Petermann, Global Justice Ecology Project


The late-March, 2001 announcement by the Bush Administration that it was abandoning the Kyoto Protocol sent waves of frustration through the international community.

With only 6% of the world’s population, the US is the single greatest source of greenhouse gases, responsible for nearly 25% of the total emissions.1

Even the usually conservative USA Today criticized Bush’s decision stating, “what passes for an environmental policy in the Bush Administration is actually a plan to expand the profits of domestic energy companies at the risk of a worldwide climate catastrophe”.2

Though Bush argues that reductions in emissions could hurt the US economy,3 The United Nations’ Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change found that, “costs of adjusting power plants and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions would be small enough that no substantial economic harm would result”.4

Charlie Kronick charges in The Ecologist that Bush Administration-type thinking is based on “voodoo economics”. “that it does not matter if climate change is real, it is just too expensive to reduce emissions.5

But all of the uproar belies the fact that the Kyoto Protocol actually offers very little. The Kyoto Protocol promotes reductions of a mere 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012 compared to the 60-80% immediate reduction that is actually necessary to have any real impact on Global Warming. 6

Also overlooked are the huge loopholes which the U.S. had previously woven into the Kyoto Protocol under the Clinton Administration.

These loopholes include so-called “Flexible Mechanisms”. These mechanisms include trading in carbon credits, as well as Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism. The CDM, would allow for private corporations and Northern countries to invest in forest conservation or forestry plantations in developing countries, and consequently receive credits for the carbon absorption from these projects.7 The CDM further would be funded by the industrialized North and enforced by multilateral development agencies (such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund),

According to London’s Guardian Weekly, “the US…insisted on a market for carbon trading that would enable it to buy the right to carry on polluting. It wanted to plant forests to absorb carbon in so-called carbon sinks, and even claim carbon credits for changing the way farmers plow their fields” adding, “scientists are very uncertain about how and whether carbon sinks work at all; some estimated that the US proposals would lead to massive increases in emissions”.8

The Guardian Weekly also reported that, due to this and other concerns, as of last fall many environmentalists had begun to argue that “no deal would be better than some of the compromises being suggested”. The Guardian Weekly went on to charge, “the far more damning criticism of Kyoto was that the whole international effort had been hijacked and corrupted by the United States’ ideological obsession with the disciplines of the market as a panacea for all ills”.9

Though the United Nations’ Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change authored a report in February, 2001 which supported the idea of carbon offset forestry, it admitted the carbon storage effects would be temporary. Additionally, Daniel Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council questions whether these theoretical programs will actually be effective, “the big question is whether real programs in the real world will work”.10

Even U.S. corporations have expressed doubts about carbon offset forestry. Dale E. Heydlauff, of American Electric Power stated, “If you don’t have a system that’s legitimate and verifiable, there’s tremendous potential for gaming the system”.11

Another key concern of Kyoto was the US insistence that no agreement could be reached until Southern countries were subject to the same emissions reductions targets. Developing nations, on the other hand, want to insure that they are not “locked into low standards of living”12 and point out that 85% of the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel burning in the last two centuries is from industrialized nations.13

Forcing the same emission reductions targets on developing nations has several important problems. As Larry Lohmann of Corner House observed, this approach promotes, “the premise that existing inequalities in use of the world’s carbon sinks and stocks are normal. Any measure requiring all countries to reduce emissions by similar percentages, for example, would allow the US to go on producing roughly one-quarter of the greenhouse gases released yearly, even though it has only four percent of the world’s population. Similarly, North-South “carbon trading”. suggests that it is legitimate for rich countries or companies who already use more than their share of the world’s carbon sinks and stocks to buy still more of them “using cash which has itself been accumulated partly through a history of overexploiting those sinks and stocks”.14

Industries, unsuccessful at debunking the evidence of global warming, turned instead toward promoting the idea that it would be cheaper to establish plantations on inexpensive land (in the Global South), than to reduce pollution. By 1997, the U.S. mandated that they would not sign on to reduce emissions unless trading in carbon credits was allowed to occur with countries which had not accepted such reductions. Daphne Wysham, writing for the San Jose Mercury News, pointed out in 1998 that meetings on climate change resembled “trade shows”. where “instead of focusing on how to prevent global warming, attendees jostled to get a piece of a lucrative emerging market: trading in pollution credits”.15

As of July 1999, there were already four million hectares (ten million acres) of carbon offset plantations in such countries as Costa Rica, Uganda, Malaysia and Ecuador, with more in the works for locations including Chiapas, Mexico and Queensland, Australia.16 As of 2001, additional plantations were being developed in Paraguay, Indonesia, Cameroon, Chile, Colombia, Vietnam and the Czech Republic.17 The desire of industry to develop carbon offset forestry to avoid carbon emissions reductions explains the rampant and manic push by corporations to implement this unproven technology in locations around the world.

By looking at the list of countries where carbon sink plantations are being established, it becomes evident that corporations are targeting the cheapest lands “currently home to the poorest populations. In order to ensure “net carbon gain”., these lands would have to be protected from activities that would compromise their carbon sequestering ability. As such they would need to be protected as virtual human-exclusion zones, displacing resident communities (until such a point as the Northern “owners”. decided these lands had served their purpose, at which time they would likely be logged, for additional return on the investment). This type of absentee ownership, conducted for the purpose of perpetuating Northern industrial dominance, will likely be done without any concern for the traditional uses of that land, to the detriment of the local human population.18

Preservation of forested areas or establishment of plantations, further, will likely lead to displacement of local forestry activities (pushing logging or agricultural conversion to other areas) “defeating the goal of net gain of carbon.19

Other issues which would have to be addressed to insure an overall increase in carbon absorption include:

  • fire suppression to avoid loss of carbon (in areas such as Iberia and Indonesia, establishment of plantations has led to increases in wildfires);
  • stopping decay or disease in trees;
  • establishment of 100+ year guarantees against political changes which might lead to destruction of carbon sinks;
  • assurances that funding would not be lost for other forest protection programs;
  • insuring that the push for carbon plantations does not slow or prevent the development of technologies for carbon emission reduction;
  • finding a way to avoid potential for “forest blackmail”. “threats to forests outside of project boundaries made to attract additional moneys to “protect” them. For, as the Carbon Storage Trust suggests, “carbon credits for forest protection could become the greatest incentive for deforestation ever conceived”.20 ;
  • guarantees that carbon credit forestry wouldn’t drive up wood prices “a side effect that would result in greater incentives to log elsewhere.21, 22

As Larry Lohmann further explains,

“the effect of plantations on erosion and carbon storage of soils downstream would have to be calculated for a century or more. Ways would also have to be found to anticipate and account for possible loss of trees from insect infestation, disease or accident. For carbon credits to have even nominal validity, these predictions would have to be made to be as certain as the prediction that, when fossil fuels are burned, carbon dioxide will be produced. This is a tall order given that even today it remains unclear where all the world’s carbon sinks are, how their CO2-fixing capacity works or will be affected by hotter temperatures, and so on..”.23

Another concern about the establishment of carbon offset forestry plantations revolve around studies that found that native forests absorb more carbon than plantations and that industrial tree plantations may actually speed up global warming. A 1995 report by the World Resources Institute and the US Environmental Protection Agency found that plantations and tree farms in tropical forests can at best only store 1/4 the carbon as native forests.24 Likewise, in temperate forests, it has been speculated that the conversion of five million hectares (12.5 million acres) of old-growth forests to managed stands in the Pacific Northwest may have accounted for the release of 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the past 100 years.25 That establishment of plantations generally occurs on former native forest lands suggests that the establishment of carbon offset plantations around the world will exacerbate global warming, rather than mitigate it.

Global warming itself could determine the effectiveness of the carbon offset plantation model. The carbon sink method could turn out to be a double-edged sword. Plantations have been found to be at high risk of catching fire, thus releasing carbon. In a world of rapidly increasing temperatures and unpredictable weather, many of the proposed carbon sinks could actually worsen the situation. The 1997 Indonesian forest fires produced more carbon emissions than did all of the European Union countries together”.26

Finally, the concept of carbon offset forestry makes little sense when one considers that when the accumulation of greenhouse gases began in earnest fifty years ago, there were still vast reserves of intact forest throughout South America, Africa, Canada and Russia, which have each been severely depleted since then. In other words, atmospheric carbon began accumulating when there were still vast reserves of native forest around the world. The idea that industry can establish tree plantations sufficient to make up for those lost native forests plus plantations sufficient to compensate for the increased emissions of today is absurd. Plus, carbon offset forestry proposals contain no provisions for reducing global demand for timber products that is causing the worldwide devastation of carbon-absorbing native forests.

The CIDA Forestry Advisors Network estimates that in 1950 there were 2.5 billion hectares (6.25 billion acres) of tropical forest. By 2000 they estimate that only 2.0 billion remained “a loss of 20%.27 To return us to the carbon sequestering potential of 1950 would require the re-establishment of 500 million hectares (1.25 billion acres) of native forest. It is unknown whether any sized area of plantations could replace these lost forests.

Global Warming and the Timber Industry
While most of the blame for Global Warming has been directed at fossil fuel industries, a large part of the blame must be focused on the timber industry “the very entity which proposes to offer the solution to the crisis in the form of GE tree plantations. As of 1997, US pulp mills were consuming 12,430 square miles of forest each year, a number that continues to skyrocket.28 Dogwood Alliance’s Danna Smith writes, “forests once accounted for more than 40% of the Earth’s land surface, today they cover about 27%, representing a total loss of about one-third. Most of this loss has occurred since 1950”. 29 This deforestation has contributed significantly to Global Warming. An estimated 120 billion tons of carbon were released into the atmosphere between 1850 and 1990 as a result of deforestation and further estimates indicate that deforestation between 1980 and 1990 alone released 16 billion tons.30

Additionally, the pulp and paper industry is the third largest energy consumer in the US,31 acting as a major contributor to Global Warming through a combination of fossil fuel burning, destruction of carbon-absorbing forests, and through the methane released when paper products decompose in the landfill.

The GE Tree Connection
Genetically engineered trees, being modified to grow as rapidly as possible, and be disease and insect resistant, fit into the scheme of carbon offset forestry perfectly. It is easy to imagine that fast-growing GE tree plantations maturing in as few as three years would be given higher priority than slow-growing traditional tree plantations. This explains why corporations such as Toyota, Shell and British Petroleum have gotten involved in the genetic engineering of trees.32 Some trees are even being engineered to be resistant to drought or salinity, to be available for planting even in deserts “enabling corporations to turn a profit from formerly “unproductive”. lands.33

However, the problems inherent with genetically engineered trees will lead to forest health crises including promotion of pesticide-resistant super-insects; damage to soils; lignin-reduction resulting in trees which more easily decompose (thus releasing carbon);34 and disease-resistance manipulation causing the creation of increasingly pathogenic viruses. All of these impacts will result in carbon releases which enhance global warming rather than mitigate it.

In conclusion, carbon offset forestry is another manufactured industry promise presented to lull the populations of the industrial North into believing that they can maintain their massively consumptive lifestyle with no long-term consequences, by simply “planting trees”. The addition of genetically engineered trees into the mix ensures continued devastation of the ecosystems of the earth.

The December, 2003 decision by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Milan, Italy that approved the use of genetically engineered trees in carbon offset forestry plantations is offering the forest protection, anti-biotechnology and global warming movements an excellent opportunity to debunk the “green”. mythology of carbon offset forestry and trade in carbon credits, both of which exploit the power imbalances between North and Douth and are overly geared toward allowing the continued emission of greenhouse gases. In doing to, the movements will simultaneously deal a blow to the dangerous development of genetically engineered trees.

The Guardian Weekly concludes, “what has been singularly lacking [in the climate change debate] has been any widespread popular campaign. There have been no Seattle-style protests… Politicians respond to pressure. When they have big, angry demonstrations outside their conference centers, it focuses their minds…”.35

An excellent source for additional information on carbon offset forestry is World Rainforest Movement’s Briefing #3, “The Carbon Shop: Planting New Problems” by Larry Lohmann www.wrm.org.uy

Check out the Stop GE Trees Campaign Website: www.stopgetrees.org

1 Wickham, DeWayne, “Bush Trades Global Warming Concerns for Energy Profits”., USA Today, April 3, 2001
2 ibid.
3 ibid.
4 Revkin, Andrew C., “Report to Back Forests to Fight Warming” New York Times, February 10, 2001
5 Kronick, Charlie, “The International Politics of Climate Change, The Ecologist, Vol. 29 No. 2, March/April 1999, p. 105
6 ibid., p. 106
7 ibid., p. 105 also “Carbon Offset’ Forestry & Privatization of the Atmosphere” Corner House Briefing No. 15, July 1999, p. 3-4
8 Bunting, Madeleine, “Hot Air in the Hague” Guardian Weekly, November 30, 2000
9 ibid.
10 Revkin, A.C., op. cit. 4.
11 Revkin, A.C.,op. cit. 4
12 “What Next on Warming” Washington Post, April 3, 2001 (source: Burlington Free Press)
13 Pearce, Fred, “All You Ever Wanted to Know About the Politics of Global Warming” New Scientist Planet Science, July 28, 1999.
14 Corner House, op. cit. 7 p. 3
15 Wysham, Daphne, “Profiting From Pollution” San Jose Mercury News, November 22, 1998
16 Mitchell, Jon, “Costa Rica Plans to Turn Forests into Greenbacks” Christian Science Monitor May 26, 1998; op. cit. 7 p. 4 ; Harris, B., “Costa Rica: Carbon Sink’ Plan a License to Pollute, Say Critics” Sunday Age (Melbourne), March 12, 1995
17 “Tree Trouble” World Rainforest Movement, www.wrm.org.uy, December, 1999
18 Corner House, op. cit. 7. p. 5-6; World Rainforest Movement, “Tree Plantations: Impacts and Struggles”. 1999
19 Carbon Storage Trust, “Carbon Offsets in Forestry” Oxford, 1999 p. 12; Smith, J., Mulongoy, K., Persson, R. and Sayer, J., “Harnessing Carbon Markets for Tropical Forest Conservation: Towards a More Realistic Assessment” Center for International Forestry Research, Jakarta, 1998, p. 8
20 Carbon Storage Trust, op. cit. 17, p. 8
21 Smith, J. et. al., op. cit. 17 p. 8.
22 Corner House, op. cit. 7, pp. 8-10
23 Corner House, op. cit. 7, p. 9.
24 Trexler, M.C., Haugen, C., “Keeping it Green: Tropical Forestry Opportunities for Mitigating Climate Change” World Resources Institute, EPA, March, 1995.
25 Harmon, M.E., Farrell, W.K., Franklin, J.F., “Effects on Carbon Storage of Conversion of Old Growth Forests to Young Forests”.
26 “Getting to the Root of Sinks” REC: The Bulletin 8/3, 7/28/99, www.rec.org
27 “Decline of Tropical Forests” Global Futures Bulletin #83, Institute for Global Futures Research.
28 Williams, Adam, “Global Warming and the Pulp and Paper Industry” Native Forest Network report, September, 1997.
29 Smith, D., “Chipping Forests & Jobs: A Report on the Economic and Environmental Impacts of the Chip Mills in the Southeast” Dogwood Alliance and Native Forest Network, 1997.
30 Houghton, R.A., “Effects of Land Use Change, Surface Temperature and CO2 concentration on terrestrial stores of Carbon” IPCC/WHRC Workshop, Woods Hole, MA Oct. 1992.
31 James, K., “Pulp and Paper Companies Save Energy and Resources Through Climate Wise” TAPPI Journal Vol. 80, No. 10, 1997.
32 Langelle, Orin, “From Native Forest to Frankenforest” in Brian Tokar, ed., Redesigning Life, The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering, London: Zed Books, 2001, p. 122
33 “Sequestered Carbon Dioxide” Green Energies Newsletter, August 9, 1998 at www.nrglink.com/archives/nrgs898.html
34 Sampson, V., Lohmann, L., “Genetically Modified Trees” Corner House Briefing No. 21, December, 2000, p. 8.
35 Bunding, M., op. Cit. 8.

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