Land, The Greatest Excuse of All


Great news. We have found a solution to climate change. After all the negotiating and hand wringing there is, at long last, a way out of this dilemma. And the good news is that it won’t be hard at all. In fact, it requires us to do pretty much nothing at all. Just put a fence around a piece of the back 40 and christen it "offset," and, voila, you’ve got an excuse to keep on polluting.

This may seem too crazy to be true, but it is happening and it is why countries like Australia and the U.S. are suddenly agreeing to "reduce" their emissions (even if only by a paltry amount). By pushing land-based "sinks" into carbon markets, countries can conveniently count their forests, grasslands, and other ecosystems on the "assets" side of their greenhouse gas accounting worksheets. Is this reducing emissions? Of course not. It is no more than an accounting trick. An article by Guy Pearse and Gregg Borschmann in the Sydney Morning Herald on December 14, 2009, "Green Pot of Gold Lures Politicians," reports a "candid remark" from a climate negotiator in a private briefing in Copenhagen, who stated that Australia would be able to commit to a 25 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 if proposed land-use rule changes pushed by developed countries were accepted as part of a new global climate deal. "And all that without having to impose a nasty tax, set up a complicated emissions trading scheme, or clean up a single polluting pipe. It is a political win-win."

Indeed, Australia has now proposed to offset 100 percent of their emissions, having exempted their agricultural sector from an emissions cap and offered unlimited offsets from "soil carbon sequestration" as well as forests and tree plantations, inside and outside Australia.

Meanwhile, Canada is similarly champing at the bit to take advantage of the new land-based sinks accounting game. A proposal has been made to set aside a large area of their boreal forest to "offset" the Athabasca tar sands project, considered the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.

Why didn’t we think of this earlier? We did. Understanding the history that got us to this point is revealing. In the early stages of the Kyoto negotiations, the U.S., with allies like Canada and Australia, proposed that countries should be permitted to include their forests and grasslands as sinks in part of their carbon accounting equations. Countries with a lot of forest and farmland could count the carbon sequestered in those lands as an offset for rather substantial greenhouse gas emissions. This was not exactly met with smiles by the rest of the world. A huge debate ensued, the essence of which is captured in this report on the UN climate conference in 2000 (COP6) from the American Geological Institute: "Negotiations at The Hague ultimately broke down over disagreements between the United States and the European Union on the role of carbon sequestration. Language in the Kyoto Protocol focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions but leaves the door open for developed countries to receive credit for sequestering carbon in long-term sinks such as forests and agricultural soil or by injection into deep wells. The U.S. government has supported research in carbon sequestration and understanding the carbon cycle in hopes to use the results to maximize sequestration credits. The European Union argued that doing so would short-circuit the treaty’s central goal of emissions reduction. Instead of completely closing the negotiations, representatives have suspended the discussion until the COP7 meeting in Morocco in May or June of next year. No matter how the election works out here at home, the debate over carbon sinks is likely to remain heated, initially over whether to accept them and eventually over how to measure them."

Land-Based Sinks As Offsets?

Eventually, a compromise (the Marrakesh Accord) was reached that enabled some use of land-based sinks but limited them to "afforestation and reforestation" (tree plantations) and further limited their use by Annex 1 (industrialized) countries to only 1 percent of greenhouse gas emission reduction obligations. At the time, the World Rainforest Movement responded: "Climate negotiators chose to ignore the increasing number of scientific studies which question the capacity of tree plantations to be a long-term solution to climate change. They also chose to ignore that this mechanism will in fact result in a net increase of fossil-fuel emissions in the North. And they also opted to ignore the impacts that large-scale tree plantations have on people and the environment."

The debates and disagreements were based on the fact that forests (and other ecological systems), as well as plantations, are unreliable as carbon sinks. Trees die unexpectedly—forest fires, droughts, beetle infestations, all manner of possible disruptions could result in the carbon being released into the atmosphere making it difficult to claim "permanence." The science of measuring carbon flows in and out of forests or other ecosystems is in its infancy, very complex, and as variable as the ecosystems themselves. On top of that, there are problems of "leakage," when land use changes in one place result in a domino impact elsewhere. (The classic example: if a parcel of forest is set aside and protected while demand for timber products remains the same, cutting to meet the demand will simply move to a different parcel resulting in no net gain in protected forest.)

The absurdity of using land-based sinks as offsets for fossil fuel emissions is nowhere more clear than in Canada. The extraction of heavy crude oil from tar sand there is the reason Canada now has among the world’s highest rates of deforestation. The areas to be set aside as offsets would be privatized, amounting to the largest act of enclosure in world history, and there is no scientific basis for a target number to begin with. But the bigger problem is that the boreal forest is dying. With massive areas infested by pine beetle, impacts of rapid warming, such as increasing forest fires, and other forest health issues, the forest, alarmingly, is shifting from being a carbon sink to a carbon source. This does not bode well for its capacity to offset anything.

The U.S. has persisted over the years in promoting carbon markets, including land-based sinks. For instance, when it came time for a climate bill, it should have been no surprise that forestry and agricultural (soils) offsets were featured prominently. The U.S. House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act in June 2009. Among other little horrors, the bill provided two billion tons of offsets. Is that a lot? According to International Rivers, if they were taken advantage of, the U.S. would not actually need to reduce emissions for close to 30 years. In addition to the fallacy of offsets being offsety (i.e., they are a lie, not reductions, unjust, unreliable etc.), they were to be supplied almost entirely by agriculture and forestry. This has the ancillary benefit of providing profitable opportunities for developing and marketing technologies for measuring and assessing carbon flows through ecosystems.

Wait a minute, you say, "Isn’t industrial agriculture a major source of emissions? How can it provide offsets?" Well, our wise leaders just decided that agriculture should not be a "capped sector," but rather "part of the solution" in the grand carbon marketing scheme that is supposedly going to rescue us. Colin Peterson, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, essentially held the entire climate bill hostage by demanding that changes in agriculture practices should be subsidized by being made eligible to earn offset credits (under USDA, not EPA jurisdiction). What changes in agriculture practices will benefit? There is a list of eligible technologies for agriculture offsets for the house bill and another for the Senate partner bill (Stabenow’s "Clean Energy Partnerships Act"). Included are a long list of practices, including various sorts of methane collection, tree plantations, carbon capture and sequestration, destruction of ozone depleting substances, and a suite of land, soil, and agriculture technologies that will supposedly sequester carbon or avoid emissions.

A big winner is likely to be "chemical no till," which is the practice of leaving residues on the fields and planting seeds for the following crop by drilling them into the soil through residues, rather than tilling. This is not a practice that your local farmers’ market provider cares about much. They grow a bunch of different crops in a diversified farm system. No, this is a concern for industrial growers of genetically modified (GM) soy and corn—those vast monocultures that feed the machinery of Monsanto, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland. Monsanto has already been pushing to get chemical no-till agriculture into the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (offsets) since 1998. No-till is already marketed extensively as an offset in the voluntary markets on the Chicago Climate Exchange. Monsanto knows full well that if farmers growing their Roundup-ready GM soy can get offset credits for practicing no till, sales of their proprietary seed will skyrocket. When farmers refrain from tilling the soil for weed control, they resort instead to using more Roundup, Monsanto’s fabled glyphosate herbicide. Monsanto already clears more than $1 billion per year in profits from the Roundup cash cow alone.

Pretending to offset fossil fuel emissions by supporting GM soy and herbicide use may seem a bit off, but those more willing to compromise might accept the idea if it at least reduced emissions significantly below current practice. Not so. A number of studies seriously challenge the whole assumption that no till reduces CO2 emissions at all. So even the tiny "better than the worst case" benefit may be illusory. Meanwhile, as demonstrated by the Rodale Institute and others, diverse organic farming methods not only "reduce" emissions, but actually build soil carbon. (The Stabenow bill does in fact list organic farming methods, but we can hope organic farmers will not accept having their practices prostituted in the name of offsetting fossil fuel burning.)

Biochar to Sequester Carbon?

Another big winner would be biochar. This is essentially charcoal created by burning plant matter under conditions of low oxygen. Some portion of the carbon from the original plant material is retained in the charcoal, and proponents claim that burying this charcoal in soils is one of the most "promising" means of sequestering carbon. The International Biochar Initiative, an entity comprised of entrepreneurs and academics, has diligently lobbied for inclusion of biochar, or at least "soil carbon sequestration," in carbon markets to ensure that finances flow in their direction. They claim biochar carbon is stable in soils for thousands of years, based on the Terra Preta soils of the Amazon, created by indigenous peoples thousands of years ago, which still retain their fertility and carbon content. This, they say, is proof that biochar is a reliable means of storing carbon in soils and, therefore, biochar should be considered not only for offsets, but as a viable climate geo-engineering technique. Some have suggested planting from 500 million to over one billion hectares of industrial tree plantations, burning them, and burying the resulting charcoal in soils as a means of reducing atmospheric CO2 levels. But this ignores the serious implications of such massive land-use change—there are now about 1.3 billion hectares of cropland worldwide.

However, the Amazonian Indians produced their "terra preta" using a complex mixture of charcoal with other organic materials. So far we have failed to replicate their success. Is it fair to assume our modern biochar will behave like terra preta? Not likely. The first self-proclaimed commercial retailer of biochar, "Eternagreen," was, they claimed, made by pyrolysis of garbage, including plastics and old tires. (The parent company, Mantria Industries, turned out to be engaged in a Ponzi scheme targeting elderly people with a desire to invest in "green practices" and has since folded under pressure from the Securities Exchange Commission.)

Meanwhile, biochar advocates claim that biochar will increase soil fertility, decrease agrochemical runoff, and provide various other benefits. But soils are highly variable, as are the properties of charcoal, depending on how and from what they are made of. Studies of biochar indicate that it can provide a boost in fertility, but this may be temporary due to nutrients in the ash, in some cases followed by a decline or even collapse in soil fertility (oops). And if all your "wastes and residues" have been charred, there is little left to compost for nutrients. Some of the carbon in biochar may be retained over long periods, but in some cases biochar additions stimulate soil microbial action that oxidizes the preexisting soil organic matter (oops, again). On top of that, there are serious concerns about the concentration of toxins in char, which could then find their way from the soil into waterways and the food chain. Finally, charcoal is a form of black carbon. When biochar particles break down, as they are known to do, the very small particles can become airborne and contribute greatly to global warming as "soot," the second leading cause of warming besides CO2. Soot particles present a serious threat to human health as they bypass the upper respiratory system and contribute to lung disease. In a recent test trial in Quebec, where biochar was applied to a large soy field, they reported that over 30 percent of the biochar "blew away" during application before it was tilled into the soil. Wait. Isn’t tilling supposed to be a bad thing?

Some Ludicrous Offsets

Some of the technologies proposed make sense, if not as offsets, but others are ludicrous—for example, "changes in diet for livestock that reduce methane." Indeed, there is a famous offset project involving TransAlta, the largest energy utility in Canada, which claims to offset their coal burning emissions by paying farmers in Uganda to feed their cows pills that make them burp and fart less. "Avoided conversion" is another useful trick. This means you can claim that you were thinking of converting a piece of forested land into pasture, but if you get paid enough by someone seeking to "offset," you will change your mind.

Forestry offsets include such vague phrases as "sequestration of greenhouse gases through management of tree crops" and the deeply troubling "adaptation of plant traits or new technologies that increase sequestration by forests." That was clearly written with Arborgen, the creators of genetically engineered (GE) eucalyptus, in mind. Arborgen seeks to field test close to 300,000 GE trees across the southern U.S. Their vision is to provide fast growing pulp and chips to satisfy new demands for biomass resulting from mandates for cellulosic biofuels, wood-burning electricity, and heat production, which is where most federal subsidies for "renewable energy" are currently going. Finally, there is a push to include "durable harvested wood products" as offset eligible. I suppose this means that the old wooden rocker on your porch can offset coal burning since that wood will be around longer than, say, pulp used for mail order catalogs. All this makes sense to someone, somewhere, apparently.

Carbon Counting and Other Tricks

To make it all seem more reliable, new carbon counting tricks are being developed, with the help of the geniuses at the 25x’25 organization—who’s mantra is to provide 25 percent of America’s renewable energy from farms and forests by 2025. The trick is to devise ways to skirt the annoying problem that fossil fuel emissions are permanent and ecosystem carbon sequestration is—not. Thus, they say, we can get around using buffers, insurance schemes, credit reserves, and bundling of numerous short-term credits as supposedly equivalent to "permanent." Nothing a little "creative accounting" can’t take care of.

The agriculture and forestry offset provisions in the U.S. climate bills are now snaking their way into the post-Kyoto agreement text. Discussions of "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation" (REDD) have been ongoing. Now there is talk of extending REDD to include soils and agriculture or including them in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Text to that effect was included in late drafts of the Copenhagen agreement, but then (mercifully) all fell into disregard, at least for now, as the "Copenhagen Accord" took center stage. The Accord refers to REDD, but does not specifically mention soils and agriculture. Rest assured, however, they will indeed be included in whatever comes out of the next stages of negotiations. Also in Copenhagen, a Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases was established and, judging from membership, it seems likely that a large part of their mission will be to propose methods for including soils and agriculture practices into the CDM and eligible for credits in various carbon markets.


Discussions of causes and solutions to climate change tend to focus on fossil fuels. Recognizing the important role of land-use is essential. A recent study from Georgia Tech concluded that more than half of greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. results from land-use not fossil fuel burning. There is no question that restoring and regenerating lands could provide a huge benefit in helping to reduce the damages of warming already in the pipeline. But doing so as an offset for ongoing pollution is a definite path to failure. Choosing the wrong techniques has the potential to make things worse rather than better.

Further, inclusion of land-based sinks—forests, grasslands, soils, agriculture practices—will effectively turn all of the earth’s surface into a commodity of value to polluters. When carbon becomes valuable, those who can afford to pay for it become owners. Such large-scale commodification of the commons is the biggest threat to human rights and well being imaginable. Already we are seeing the impact as projects for testing REDD are getting underway. Indigenous peoples, many of whom are forest dependent, have acted as stewards of forest ecosystems for thousands of years. They are now being evicted from their lands while entrepreneurs seeking to profit from the income generated by forest carbon buy land out from under their feet. Before REDD has even been ratified it has resulted in bloody conflicts in several locations around the world.

When other ecosystems, soils, and agriculture come into carbon markets, we will see massive escalation in conflicts over access to land, food, and farming. As Wendell Berry stated many years ago, "There is no gift greater than a piece of good land." Conversely, as is clear from the state of displaced rural farm and forest dwellers forced to exist on the edges of slums in the world’s big cities, there is nothing worse than being deprived of that gift.


Rachel Smolker is codirector of Biofuelwatch and an organizer with Climate SOS, and various climate justice networks. She has a PhD in biology from the University of Michigan and lives in Vermont.