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Stabenow Bill Would Make Toothpicks, Chopsticks Eligible for Climate Subsidies

By Brad Johnson on November 29, 2009 at 3:51 pm

"Stabenow Bill Would Make Toothpicks, Chopsticks Eligible for Climate Subsidies"

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ToothpicksA new bill proposed by Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) would give the timber industry carbon credit for cutting down old growth forests and turning them into toothpicks, chopsticks, desks, plywood, sofas, pencils, and other wood products – and throw in billions of dollars on top of that to incentivize spraying of pesticides, oil production, and coal mining.

Despite these drawbacks, the bill, entitled The Clean Energy Partnerships Act (S. 2729), does contain some strong environmental provisions – like incentives for organic agriculture and assurances that farmers, foresters and conservationists who’ve taken early action to reduce climate pollution don’t get their funding cut off.

But these gains could easily be undermined by the bill’s kitchen-sink approach to offering offset credits, as well as its total exclusion of the rigorous scientific, environmental, and social standards for crediting that are contained in the Kerry-Boxer and Waxman-Markey legislation. These key standards include protections for biodiversity and use of native, non-invasive species in forestry activities. Unless the authors of the overall climate bill take a critical look at Stabenow’s provisions, instead of just swallowing them whole, they risk significantly undermining the integrirty and aims of the overall legislation.

The bulk of the problems in Stabenow’s bill comes from the list of activities that would be eligible for lucrative offset credit. Many of these activities are already included in the Kerry-Boxer legislation, but with a critical difference: Kerry-Boxer recommends them for consideration by an Advisory Board and the president, whereas as the Stabenow bill requires their initial inclusion.

Particularly worrying is the mandate for crediting:

forest management resulting in an increase in forest carbon stores, including harvested wood products.

The theory here, long pushed by the timber industry, is that sofas, desks, baseball bats, yachts and other “harvested wood products” store the carbon that was once in trees – and they should get paid for transfering carbon from storage in a tree to storage in a 2 X 4.

Unfortunately, they neglect to mention that creating wood products requires an extraordinary amount of energy – everything from driving trucks into a forest, running chainsaws, trucking the logs back out of the forest, cutting and processing them (the biggest energy expenditure), dousing them with veneer and other energy-intensive chemicals, shipping them to a store and then getting them to a customer’s house – or into your Chinese food delivery bag. They also don’t usually highlight how much wood is lost in the shipping and manufacture process, or the degree of decay that occurs in landfills. The Wilderness Society’s Ann Ingerson did a comprehensive analysis of carbon storage in wood, “Wood Products and Carbon Storage: Can Increased Production Help Solve the Climate Crisis?” and found that in many cases, the emissions required to produce a piece of finished wood far exceeds the carbon stored in it – though that’s just one of the ways in which logging and manufacture of wood products produces emissions.

The industry also neglects to remind Members of Congress that they already get paid for selling wood products, and don’t exactly need subsidies to cut down trees.

Another questionable offset is:

altered tillage practices, including the avoided abandonment of conservation practices.

In theory, that means reduced tilling of soil, which can be a good conservation practice for reasons unrelated to climate. But crediting no or low-till ag without significant safeguards would promote “chemical no-till” — relying on chemical herbicides instead of plowing for weed control. For example, farmers can spray their fields planted with Monsanto’s genetically modified “Roundup Ready” seeds with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide — technically “no-till,” but not a practice that seems to sequester carbon or reduce other greenhouse emissions.

To its credit, however, the Stabenow bill does explicitly include organic agriculture, which, unlike chemical no-till agriculture, actually does soak up carbon — and doesn’t require the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizer, which both require tremendous amounts of energy to produce.

Finally, Stabenow mandates offset credits for “methane collection at mines, landfills, and natural gas systems” and “fugitive emissions from the oil and gas sector that reduce greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise have been flared or vented.” This does nothing but throw additional money at the fossil fuel industry — making it profitable for them to pollute for longer and unnecessarily stalling the transition to a clean energy economy.

Every junk offset purchased means one less legitimate offset activity that’s financed. Essentially, that means that for every ton of furniture or pencil offset bought, there will be that much less financing available for protecting or regrowing forests. Every ton of “chemical no-till” offset bought means that much less incentive for farmers to switch to organic agriculture. And every ton of credit given to the oil and coal industries means that much less financing for overseas clean tech or conservation projects.

There’s another serious risk to including junk offsets: a few years into the program, it will quickly become clear that activities like chemical no-till aren’t actually reducing greenhouse gas pollution – and are creating environmental devastation across whole landscapes and putting more pesticides into the food supply. Problems with any one offset program will tar all offsets – putting the entire program at risk and potentially jeopardizing the viability of the overall climate legislation.

Without offsets, farmers and foresters in particular won’t see a direct way that they can participate in – and benefit from – our nation’s efforts to address climate change. And consumers (and senators) will see much higher prices than promised on their electricity bills – potentially causing a collapse in political support for climate change action, especially if Congress becomes more conservative in the next few years.

Don’t get me wrong: climate legislation should provide strong offset incentives to landowners and others for the protection and restoration of forests and improved agricultural practices, as the Stabenow legislation rightly does. But we should only give incentives where carbon pollution is actually reduced and offset projects at least maintain biodiversity, clean water, and social standards. We cannot afford to create perverse incentives in which “protecting the climate” means cutting down trees and giving oil companies and pesticide manufacturers new taxpayer subsidies.

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