Don’t invest your carbon offset in trees

Trees are bad carbon credits

Trees are climate change miracles.

They take in carbon and give up oxygen. The region around them benefits from their shade and trees put moisture into the air. A mature tree can absorb 20 to 30 kilograms of carbon annually.

However, trees make lousy carbon credits.

Let’s begin with age. A tree starts as a seedling, a tiny plant. That seedling captures almost no carbon. It takes 10 years (depending on the species) for a tree to become a carbon-absorbing machine. When you invest in a tree-related carbon credit, you are essentially saying “I will emit carbon today but I promise to make up for it 10 years from now”.

A song by Malvina Reynolds goes: “And if you think you'll love me for a long, long time, plant an apple tree.”

The very length of trees’ lives make it hard to safeguard them. You can plant a tree today but who is going to safeguard it over the next 100 years? Trees can be lost to forest fire (releasing all the carbon they absorb). They can be lost to development and they can be lost due to disease, such as the pine bark beetle.

We also aren’t very good at creating healthy ecosystems. Planting projects have chosen trees that are wrong for the region, which then became an invasive species.

The Fort McMurray fire in 2016 was made worse because planted trees lowered the water table, drying out the peat bog, making the peat highly flammable. The effort to replace hardwoods with sustainable bamboo has resulted in forest loss (ironically hardwood forests are cut down to plant bamboo), and ecosystem loss from monoculture (planting nothing but bamboo). We’ve certainly learned from these mistakes but they highlight how hard it is to get it right.

One of the biggest issues with tree planting is the tug of war between food crops and tree plantations. In Brazil, which contains 60% of the Amazonian rain forest, trees are cut down to create land for agriculture and areas for grazing livestock.

Before we shake a finger, we need to acknowledge the settlers aren’t getting filthy rich destroying the rainforest, they are fighting for survival. In other regions, replanting projects have purchased agricultural land outright in countries with uncertain food production. In some cases Indigenous roles in determining land use have been trampled in the interests of replanting.

However, planting trees is not a worthless endeavour. While they aren’t a high-quality carbon offset, they can play an important role in climate adaptation. The climate is getting hotter and unusual weather patterns, such as heat domes, are bad around the world.

The 2021 B.C. summer heat dome was responsible for between 600 to 700 deaths. These high temperatures are bad across Canada but worse in the cities. Because cities are primarily made of concrete and asphalt, they trap heat. Planting trees (“urban greening”) can go a long way towards mitigating heatwaves.

On a super-local scale, if you own your house you might take a look at your southern exposure. Would your house benefit from a shade tree? If you pick a deciduous tree you can have it both ways—in the summer the leaves will produce shade and in the winter you will still get the light and heat from sunny days. A pergola on the south face can be designed to let in winter light and limit summer heat.

Tree planting is less powerful globally. Rich countries plant more trees in developing countries than they do locally.

Support urban forestry in your location. And, if you are in the market for carbon offsets, look for projects that are measurable and permanent.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Should B.C. be trading power with the U.S.?

Buying, selling electricity

B.C.’s sales and purchases of electricity with the U.S. have come up in two contexts recently.

In December 2023, B.C. set a record by purchasing approximately 1,500 gigawatt hours from the U.S. Should B.C. buy U.S.-generated electricity? The second question is should B.C. sell clean hydro-generated electricity and buying coal- and gas-generated electricity?

Powerex (a subsidiary of BC Hydro) trades power on the Western Interconnection, which includes B.C., California and 13 other U.S. states.

Why does B.C. belong to an interconnection? Belonging to a cross-border grid does two things. First, trading power across the grid can push the price of electricity down. On the electricity exchange, suppliers offer electricity and purchasers select the lowest cost supplier (and wind and solar are now cheaper than fossil fuels).

Second, it allows risks to be spread across the grid. Individual generation sites may go down but belonging to a large grid means electricity can be purchased from other generation sites.

Even during the dark ages, where much of the western seaboard’s electricity was produced by coal and natural gas, regulators and power producers needed wider grids to increase stability.

The best argument for belonging to a large grid today is supply and demand—the supply of renewables and spreading out peak periods of demand.

First, the supply. Wind energy fluctuates locally and solar peaks during sunny days. Spreading out 34 gigawatts of wind and 28 gigawatts of solar (2021) from B.C. to southern California evens out the renewable supply. The Western Interconnection can support more intermittent renewables than B.C. alone.

Then comes the demand. B.C.’s electricity usage peaks during the winter, while Californa’s peaks during July and August. Winter temperatures are generally mild along the Pacific coast but can drop to -20 C inland. Participating in the Western Interconnection evens out demand and makes space for more intermittent renewables.

There aren’t really any alternatives to participating in the Western Interconnection. B.C. utilities have to meet not only average electricity demand, but peak electricity demand. Cold days during the winters of 2022 and 2024 set demand records near 11,000 gigawatts. Without the interconnection, B.C. would have to massively overbuild electricity generation. B.C. would be forced to build fossil fuel plants, which run only a few days or a few weeks per year. If unusual conditions raised the demand higher, even for a few hours, there could be blackouts.

So, if trading electricity through the Western Interconnection reduces prices, why are BC Hydro and FortisBC raising rates? The problem is not trading, it is that BC Hydro is generating less electricity.

Up through 2022, BC Hydro bought and sold electricity on the exchange but generally sold more electricity than it purchased. In 2023, the first half of the year had less precipitation and was followed by an early snowmelt, leaving B.C. reservoirs startlingly low, resulting in less hydroelectric power. To make up the shortfall, B.C. purchased more electricity through the Western Interconnection. The new Site C dam and the 2024 clean energy power call will increase the supply of electricity but global warming promises more unpleasant surprises.

Is BC buying dirty electricity? The problem is electrons don’t have ID tags. When you pull an electron out of a wall socket, you really have no idea where it came from. However, as a whole in 2021 Western Interconnection region generated 47% of its electricity from clean sources, such as hydro, wind and solar.

More remarkable was how fast the region is evolving—wind and solar resources across the grid have increased by 50% since 2017. Powerex, being an intelligent trader, buys electricity when it is cheap. Often that means buying electricity during the day when an abundance of Californian solar energy forces the price down. One could make the argument Powerex is purchasing “solar electricity”.

As we watch the market, we should remember carbon emissions are not a B.C. problem, they are a global problem. Reducing emissions from B.C. generation is good, but influencing the market represented by the Western Interconnection has a much larger impact.

We are all in this together.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Pro and cons of the 'carbon market'

The 'carbon market'

If you’ve taken an airline flight recently, you may have noticed the airline offers to offset the carbon emitted during your flight for a small fee.

The rational goes like this. You have a flight you cannot avoid (relative in the hospital or just a quarterly meeting for instance). That flight is going to increase global warming. You can measure how much the flight contributes to global warming and you can pay someone else to do a project that would reduce carbon emissions by the same amount. The project cancels out the flight and you don’t have to feel (as) guilty. If you check the box, you’ve participate in the “carbon market.”

At its most basic, the carbon market has three stages:

1. The project—A popular project right now is providing efficient cookstoves to women in developing nations.

2. The third-party certifier, who examines the project to see if it actually reduces carbon emissions and registers the carbon credit so it cannot be sold more than once. Verra and the Gold Standard are some of the largest certifiers/registries.

3. Certified and registered carbon offsets are then sold by the project to a wholesale or retail storefront. The retailer then sells carbon offsets to individuals or businesses, such as an airline (Air Canada works with Chooose and Westjet is working with less.ca).

Environmentalists are not enthusiastic about carbon offsets. The first generation offsets were a huge disappointment. They mostly consisted of planting trees. Trees actually do suck up and store carbon. However, you not only have to plant a tree, you have to guarantee over its lifetime (which is long) that no one is going to chop it down on purpose or burn it up by accident.

Because of stricter certification, credits today are more trustworthy, but it’s still a work in progress.

Then there’s the fact there’s no way around your flight generating real carbon emissions. Carbon credits are not magic tokens that make carbon disappear. The world as a whole is generating too much carbon. There is no alternative other than drastic reduction. Finally, it is distressing to think that buying a carbon credit could be seen as giving permission to pollute.

However, the voluntary carbon market (the one you participated in when you bought your flight) is expected to grow to $10 to $40 billion (US) by 2030.

Why? Offering carbon credits provides investments for new technologies and for technology transfer to developing nations. Tesla makes about 10% of its income selling carbon credits gained by making electric cars.

Rich nations generated their wealth by industrializing faster than the rest of the world. Early industrialization means rich nations, over time, have put more carbon into the atmosphere. Developing countries need to reach higher income levels (infant mortality, indoor air pollution, lack of vaccines and sanitation kill more people by far than global warming) but the world can’t afford for them to follow a Dickensian, coal-fueled path.

Developing nations have already proved they can leapfrog outdated technologies. Cell phones have reached people without ever stringing wires for landlines. Mobile banking has taken off without brick and mortar banks. Carbon markets could provide a mechanism for wealthy countries to fund developing countries as they leapfrog fossil fuels.

Trading carbon credits can get pretty complex. Companies can buy carbon credits to cancel out emissions, but they can also buy them to hold, anticipating carbon credits will be more expensive in the future.

Carbon credits can be traded like stocks. A full carbon market can include all of the complex and risky vehicles available in the stock market.

Do I buy carbon credits? Sometimes. I feel my energy is best spent promoting education and pushing for political change. I have used online calculators to estimate my family’s carbon footprint but instead of buying credits, I work harder to reduce our footprint.

This includes less driving, resetting the thermostat and practicing thoughtful consumerism. However, I cannot get around the fact my extended family is 2,000 kilometres away.

When we buy airline tickets, we pay for carbon credits. To me it's a reminder air travel remains an issue—and it supports the carbon market.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Hydrogen and the hydrogen economy

Benefits of hydrogen

Hydrogen is all the rage.

The US has announced $1 billion in hydrogen subsidies in the form of tax credits and Canada will soon follow. So what is hydrogen? And what is the “hydrogen economy”?

Hydrogen is the smallest and most abundant element. It is found in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Hydrogen is talked about in the same breath as solar and wind. But hydrogen is inherently different—solar and wind are power sources, hydrogen is power storage. Think of a bucket full of water. Solar and wind are the water, hydrogen is the bucket.

Because air and water are all around us, we make the assumption hydrogen is cheap and freely available. In reality, making usable hydrogen is very energy intensive. In order for hydrogen to be in a useful format, a great deal of energy has to go into separating it, then compressing or liquifying it.

Is hydrogen a clean fuel or a dirty fuel? That depends on where you get the energy. You can use energy from a coal fired power plant and that would make hydrogen a dirty fuel. You can use energy from solar power and that would make hydrogen a clean fuel.

What is the “hydrogen economy"? Think about the world-wide system that puts gas into cars. Companies extract and refine oil into gasoline. It is distributed around the world in tankers, then trucked to gas stations to fill underground holding tanks. As a driver, you go to the gas station, fill up your vehicles and drive away. You could call that a “gasoline economy.”

In order for hydrogen to become useful, we need a similar system—places that separate hydrogen, compress it and transport it to where it is used. We already have a fledgling “hydrogen economy.” It’s just tiny and scattered. Hydrogen is currently used to refine petroleum and to create ammonia fertilizer. Nearly all this hydrogen is created using methane/natural gas, making hydrogen a dirty fuel.

Why are governments investing money in a hydrogen economy? We have low-carbon solutions for many of our problems. We know how to make homes energy efficient. We can generate electricity with wind and solar. We know how to make passenger cars run on electricity. But there are several unsolved problems. How do you create the super high temperatures used to make cement or steel? How do you power tractor-trailers hauling freight coast to coast? How can you fuel overseas aircraft flights? In each case hydrogen would provide a dense, high-powered fuel.

There is another realm where hydrogen might be critical. Currently we are ramping up solar and wind production. Eventually the world will be divided into the haves -- regions with enough renewables to serve their populations, and the have-nots where renewables aren’t sufficient. Hydrogen could be created by clean power and transferred by tanks or pipes from the haves to the have-nots.

Japan, with a large population and small land mass isn’t able to produce enough renewable energy. Nearby Australia has sun and land area to spare. Recently, a large number of projects were announced, creating hydrogen in Australia and shipping it to Japan and Indonesia.

Should you get excited by hydrogen? Yes. Hydrogen could play a critical role in high temperature processes like making steel. It could provide the key to long-distance transport. However, every time you see hydrogen in the news, stop and ask yourself, “Is this clean hydrogen or is this dirty hydrogen, made the traditional way from methane/natural gas?

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Sustainability Spotlight articles

About the Author

Kristy Dyer has worked in the sustainability field for more than 10 years, including work with solar energy in New Mexico and cleantech in Silicon Valley. After she moved to the Okanagan, she ran a small business, Teaspoon Energy, doing energy audits of large houses. Most recently, she worked for a B.C. business doing carbon footprints for tourism organizations.

She has written about sustainability since 2012. You can find her columns archived at TeaspoonEnergy.blogspot.com.

Dyer has a background in physics and astronomy, and has occasionally been caught trying to impersonate an engineer.

A long-time member of First Things First, Penticton’s local climate change group, whose goals are to educate and lobby for solutions to the climate crisis, Dyer is honoured to live, work and play in the unceded, ancestral and traditional territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation.

You can contact her at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories