The sin of air travel

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      Airlines have created programs to offset emissions, but the rising popularity of flying could wipe out any gains.

      U.K. business magnate Richard Branson is everywhere these days. One minute he's hobnobbing with Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the next he's sharing the stage with Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Peter Gabriel, and Jimmy Carter at the inaugural meeting of the so-called Council of Elders.

      And much like Gore, Branson, the self-styled corporate renegade, billionaire, and head of the sprawling Virgin conglomerate, is capturing headlines with his bold talk of going green. Last September, he pledged to invest £1.6 billion (roughly $3.4 billion) in technologies aimed at reducing climate change–in particular, alternative fuels for aircraft, of which Virgin Airlines owns many. Then, this February, following the release of a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicting global temperature increases of between 1.8°C and 4°C this century, Branson put US$25 million up for grabs. The money, he said, will go to the first person or team to prove to have pulled 10 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, out of the atmosphere during the next 10 years.

      At the news conference announcing the prize, Branson posed for the assembled media with Gore. The two men cradled a globe in their hands against a dark backdrop featuring the words Earth Challenge. "Challenge" isn't the half of it. When it comes to air travel, there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles standing between the aviation industry and a carbon-neutral future. First, more people are flying. Second, although steady improvements have been made in fuel efficiency, any gains are being wiped away by the increasing number of flights. Third, even though a growing number of cars, trucks, and buses burn gas with a "biofuel" component derived from corn, palm oil, or sugar cane, jets cannot readily do the same. As George Monbiot, Guardian columnist and best-selling author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, explains, biofuels get cloudy or gelatinous at high elevations and in intense cold. Under the circumstances, any high-flying plane powered by a fuel mix containing 10 percent or more biofuel runs the risk of falling out of the sky.

      No wonder, then, that airline companies, including Canada's two carriers, are among the many carbon-dioxide-emitting industries promoting "carbon offsets" as a tool in the battle to stave off climatic chaos.

      But will offset projects, particularly those involving planting trees, actually work? Can they pull enough CO2 out of the atmosphere–or prevent enough from entering it–to counteract at least some of the activities elsewhere that pump out massive amounts of greenhouse gases? Or are offsets just a convenient way of making it look like something is being done when, in fact, it's business as usual? The inconvenient truth: it's likely a bit of both.

      The airline industry, among others, is banking heavily on offsets taking flight. So, too, it appears, is the British Columbia government. No fewer than three people currently report directly to Premier Gordon Campbell on climate-change issues. One of them, Graham Whitmarsh, comes from the airline industry and is listed as the premier's "chief advisor, carbon trading". Another three hires in this special advisory office are in the works. But like so much on the climate-change front these days, the government and major industries alike often find themselves hopelessly compromised. Air travel is a classic case in point. On the one hand, the industry and government trumpet the virtues of offsets. On the other, they actively promote increased air travel. In order to work, then, an awful lot of successful offset programs must be in place. And we'll have to be certain that they actually work. Otherwise, all that offsets may deliver is a lot of hot air, both literally and figuratively.

      At first blush, planting trees seems a natural choice in any offset strategy. Through the marvels of photosynthesis, trees suck vast amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air. Over the course of 80 years, the average tree locks up about one tonne of carbon this way. Next to oceans, which pull in even more of the heat-trapping gas, trees are our planet's greatest natural carbon "sinks". And natural sinks, it bears saying, are far more beneficial than technologies employed in energy-intensive industries such as oil and natural gas, technologies that can strip CO2 from fossil fuels and inject it deep underground for sequestration. Proponents of sequestration, including SFU economist Mark Jaccard, say it could prevent massive amounts of carbon dioxide associated with the combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas from entering the atmosphere. But trees actually pull the gas out of the atmosphere and, at least in theory, can begin to shift the so-called carbon balance in our favour.

      How important are trees in the grand scheme of things? Well, consider this. Today, according to the UN's IPCC, the burning of fossil fuels results in the annual release of about seven billion metric tonnes of carbon worldwide. According to Werner Kurz, a leading international authority on forests and carbon sequestration and senior research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service (CFS), Canada's managed forest alone holds twice that much carbon. (The "managed forest" includes much but not all of Canada's total forested area, and it is generally the area of forestland considered available to log.) To put that into context, the trees sequestering that carbon would produce a solid chunk of wood 28 cubic kilometres in size, enough to produce a line of two-by-fours circling the globe at the equator 200,000 times.

      The ability of trees to pull in vast amounts of the most common greenhouse gas is one reason why companies like Air Canada now support offset programs that are green in more ways than one. In May, Canada's largest air carrier announced a program that allows its customers to voluntarily pay an offset fee on any flight. The fee is tied to the fuel burned on the particular flight of choice and divided by the number of passengers flying. Air Canada then turns the fee over to Zerofootprint, a not-for-profit Toronto-based environmental organization that recently launched its offset campaign. Zerofootprint has, in turn, contracted with Vancouver-based Ecosystem Restoration Associates Inc., or ERA, which is on schedule to plant 260,000 trees in the Maple Ridge area.

      Jim Sheehan, an environmental technician with the District of Maple Ridge, says the program's primary focus is to improve the environment by greening key pieces of ground in the rapidly suburbanizing region. "The trees are being planted near watercourses to help restore some of the riparian functions. It will benefit fish and wildlife, spawning habitat, slope stability, and homeowners who will have more green space behind them."

      On a muggy August morning, Robert Falls, ERA's chief executive officer, stands in front of a shimmering sea of soft green near the Alouette River. Behind him, about 100,000 one-year-old seedlings, each about a third of a metre high, sit stored in black plastic pots. The soon-to-be-planted trees are all native varieties and include Douglas fir, western red cedar, Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and black cottonwood. Each tree's carbon-capturing ability has been calculated on a species-by-species basis by conducting tests on larger trees near where small batches of the new ones will be planted. All of the planting sites are then digitally recorded so that they can be called up at any time by technicians using a laptop computer in the field.

      A short drive from the seedling site, Falls takes the visitor into a densely wooded stand of trees. The shady oasis stands in stark contrast to the scene just on the other side of the road: a development of five-year-old houses, each about 3,000 square feet in size, standing cheek by jowl in the harsh sunlight. Under the canopy of the nearby trees, all is cool, but it is treacherous underfoot. The clay-laden soil is slick, and the pathways are choked with spiky blackberry canes. The original old-growth forest here was logged long ago, its trees turned into lumber, cedar shakes, and shingles in mills that once dotted the banks of the nearby Fraser River. The area has since rebounded with cedar, bigleaf maple, and alder trees, among others. But the short-lived alders are dying out, and invasive plants like blackberry choke the ground. By clearing away some of the thick underbrush, as a crew working for ERA is in the midst of doing, the groundwork is laid for planting trees that will, over decades, pull a lot of CO2 out of the air.

      "One Sitka spruce over its lifetime can sequester tonnes of carbon," Falls says. "They may start this big," he continues, holding his hands a half-metre apart. "But these things are going to be rockin' 'n' rollin' when I'm dead. We've got some of the fastest-growing green stuff on the planet, and some of the longest-lived. Even the shortest-lived trees in our program, the cottonwoods, will live 100 years."

      Falls isn't alone in his enthusiasm. Far to the north of Maple Ridge, in the Prince George and Fort St. John areas, U.K.–based multinational Reckitt Benckiser has purchased 12 parcels of land totalling 15 square kilometres. Much of the land was previously farmed, but because it was not prime agricultural land it was marginally economic. The plan is to see it converted to forest plantations consisting of two million Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, and white spruce seedlings. The company, which manufactures about four billion product units a year, including millions of cans of the household spray Lysol, says it expects that the planted trees will offset all of the carbon emissions associated with its manufacturing processes over the next two years.

      Shell Canada Ltd. (now Royal Dutch Shell plc) is also turning to forestry projects as a tool in offsetting its CO2 emissions. Earlier this year, Gary Bull, a resource economist in UBC's faculty of forestry, worked with four graduate students to identify various forested areas in B.C. and Ontario that Shell could target for offset purposes. Some of the lands, Bull says, are ideal for tree-planting. Others might involve Shell paying a private landowner not to log his land so the trees already there could continue to grow and capture carbon. Shell is also looking at paying a portion of the costs associated with replanting degraded lands in the traditional territory of the Nisga'a Nation, where previous logging and tree-planting programs were egregious.

      But there is a big caveat with all of these projects, and that is the issue of time. Environmentally conscious travellers opting to pay a voluntary carbon offset fee on their next Air Canada flight may not know it, but it will take 80 or so years for their offset to actually work. That's because the calculation is based on the carbon sequestered by a planted tree over that period of time. In Reckitt Benckiser's case, the time line is even longer: a century. Who will be around to ensure that a tree planted today does not burn down tomorrow? Or, as is so starkly evident today, that we don't end up in the midst of another cataclysmic mountain pine beetle outbreak that reduces millions of healthy pine trees to rapidly greying spires of deadwood? And what about all the carbon locked up in those dead trees? What happens if they burn? Or, more likely, rot at the stump, topple over, and then slowly decompose, releasing all of the stored carbon back into the atmosphere?

      IN THE MEANTIME, the companies that are encouraging their customers to go green continue burning fossil fuels. Fuel efficiency, as the airline-industry-funded Air Transport Action Group claims, may be improving to the point where the average plane "exceeds the efficiency of any modern compact car on the market". But because more people fly every year, jet-fuel use and greenhouse-gas emissions are soaring. Air Canada, for example, reported fuel consumption in 2006 of more than 3.81 billion litres, an increase of 4.6 percent over the previous year. That means that last year, the CO2 emissions from Canada's largest air carrier were on the order of 9.7 million tonnes. WestJet, Air Canada's major domestic competitor, had an even sharper increase in fuel usage, jumping almost 12 percent over the same period.

      Meanwhile, major destination and departure points such as Vancouver International Airport keep getting busier. A $1.4-billion expansion at the airport, now entering its third year, will add nine gates to the self-described "second largest international passenger gateway on the west coast of North America". That will keep the airport on target to see about 700,000 additional passengers per year moving into and out of the facility, which currently processes about 17 million passengers per year.

      And that doesn't even scratch the surface of the airport's true ecological footprint. Consider the rapid-transit line being built to link the airport with Vancouver's downtown waterfront. The new Canada Line will stretch some 19 kilometres in a generally north-south direction and will terminate at the expanding, cost-overrun-saddled Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre. It is doubtful that either project would have been funded were it not for business from the airport, and, in fact, the Vancouver Airport Authority is footing $300 million of the cost to build the Canada Line.

      Just to make the almost 380,000 cubic metres of concrete needed to build both projects will pump almost another one million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Then there's all the steel rebar needed to reinforce that concrete, roughly 47 million kilograms in all. Most of that is being shipped across the ocean from China, where it is produced through the burning of mountains of coal. Branson and Gore, those zealous green proselytizers, weren't kidding when they talked about an Earth Challenge.

      IN THINKING ABOUT global warming, you might want to picture a kitchen sink filling with water. Someone has become distracted and walked away from the sink. When he or she returns half an hour later, there's an awful lot of water on the floor and the faucet is gushing more H2O into the long-ago overfilled basin. You might liken planting trees in a carbon-offset strategy to the mop and pail you're going to need to clean up the floor; and CO2 emissions could be compared to the water gushing out of the tap. The mop sucks up water much like living trees do with CO2. But at the end of the day, there's still the matter of that tap, which must be turned off or at the very least turned way down. And the plug will have to be pulled, too, to bring the water level in the sink down to some reasonable level.

      Paul Lingl, a climate-change campaigner at the David Suzuki Foundation, says there is a lot to be leery of when it comes to using the carbon-capture abilities of trees to offset emissions somewhere else. A primary concern is whether or not the trees being planted are over and above the number of trees that industry or government agencies were going to plant anyway. In B.C., for example, the forest industry is legally required to plant trees on most sites (the exception being private forestlands). If the planted trees are not additional to those already slated for planting, then there's no measurable gain.

      Then there's the whole issue of permanence. Something will eventually take out the trees that are planted. "The pine beetle is just one example," Lingl says. "As climate change continues, we can expect a whole range of problems: forest fires, insect outbreaks. The whole idea of offsetting is that you're supposed to be investing in something that neutralizes emissions in perpetuity."

      In an effort to reduce its carbon footprint, Lingl says the Suzuki Foundation has calculated all its greenhouse-gas emissions for the year–153 tonnes–and then, for a cost of $22 per tonne, invested in offset programs other than tree-planting projects. Among the projects is one in the state of Bihar in India. There, several power plants fired on the waste collected from local farmers' fields are being built. By using crop waste and, in some cases, cultivating crops for direct use in the new "biomass" power plants, about 100 kilowatts of power per plant will be generated annually. Such power sources are deemed CO2–neutral because the feedstock comes from plants that are grown and cropped on a continuous cycle. More importantly, these new power plants replace the need to use diesel generators.

      Lingl says such plants have other benefits as well. Ash, the byproduct from the power plants, gets returned to nearby fields to act as a fertilizer–closing the loop, as it were. And although Lingl is the first to admit that biomass or wind power plants do not pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, they "avoid CO2 being pumped in".

      By replacing the use of diesel generators, each small biomass plant built in Bihar will negate the need to burn diesel fuel and will result in 1,200 fewer tonnes of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere each year. Furthermore, those are "permanent" savings, Lingl adds, noting that even if a biomass plant burned down, it wouldn't negate what had been saved. A planted tree that burns, however, releases all of the CO2 it has stored. There is no gain, just a loss.

      Does that mean, then, that forests should not play a role in any strategy to address one of the greatest challenges of our time? Absolutely not, Lingl says, adding that forests obviously play a critical role in the planetary carbon cycle. For that reason, he and many others in the environmental community advocate conserving forestlands as part of a strategy to wrestle greenhouse-gas emissions under control. "Avoided deforestation is becoming more widely discussed in the tropics and now, more in Canada," Lingl says.

      BUT WHAT, EXACTLY, does forest conservation mean, especially today, when landscapes show signs of such dramatic stress? Millions upon millions of dead pine trees litter the landscape in B.C.'s Interior. The mountain pine beetles that killed those trees threaten to overrun jack pine trees in the pan-Canadian boreal forest, an ecological niche they previously never occupied and in a landscape that many environmental organizations say should be preserved because of its value as a carbon sink. Worse yet, the pine beetles aren't alone in building to spectacular numbers and taking out so many trees. Other forest pests such as the spruce budworm and tree diseases such as dothistroma, a blight that attacks the needles of young pine trees, are exhibiting similarly anomalous and disquieting behaviours.

      As scientists like the CFS's Werner Kurz have shown, there are no neat, straight lines when it comes to forests and the carbon they capture and store. Forests are in a constant state of flux. In reports that Kurz has coauthored and that have been submitted to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Victoria-based scientist has documented years in which Canadian forests were carbon sinks and years when they were carbon sources. In recent years, in particular, the emissions associated with forest fires and the onset of epic events such as the mountain pine beetle outbreak have shifted Canadian forests from sink to source status. Such flips point to just how precarious "forest conservation" may be in any strategy to combat climate change.

      The propensity for significant chunks of Canada's northern forests to go up in flames was just one reason why the Canadian government elected not to include forest management in its arsenal for fighting climate change under the Kyoto Protocol, a decision Kurz believes was the right one to make.

      But although there are numerous challenges confronting forests, there is also plenty of reason to support the growing and nurturing of trees. And, Kurz adds, even cutting them down occasionally. Sitting at one of several wood tables in the cafeteria at the Canadian Forest Service's Pacific region headquarters in Victoria, Kurz wraps his knuckles on the hard, golden surface. In one of the ironies of modern carbon accounting, the wood in this solid table, which could be around for decades to come, is already deemed to be emitting CO2, even though it has actually locked up that carbon for the foreseeable future. The same applies for any solid-wood product used in home-building or furniture, for that matter.

      You can't say the same about a lot of other building materials, Kurz says. "One tonne of concrete produces one tonne of CO2." Environmental organizations can say "stop logging" all they want, but as Kurz points out, what that often means is that a tract of forestland is "saved" while somewhere else another is logged. Either that or we use products like aluminum, steel, and concrete instead of wood, with all the negative CO2 consequences that usage implies.

      "If you want to do something about climate change," Kurz says, "use wood–within reason."

      Planting and nurturing trees won't solve our climate-change woes, Kurz continues. But it will help. So, among other things, he advocates: preserving or increasing the amount of managed forestland in B.C. and elsewhere; ending climatically unfriendly forest practices such as burning the slash and other woody debris left behind at logging sites; increasing the length of time between reforestation and harvesting; preventing forest fires where possible; and doing much more with the aforementioned wood waste. That might take the form of shredding marginally economic logs into strands to make panelling products such as oriented strand board. Or it might involve gathering up the wood and converting it to energy, either through making wood pellets that can be used to heat homes or businesses or burning the waste wood under extremely high heat to generate electricity.

      IN THE MEANTIME, one particularly inconvenient truth remains. Offset programs offer some prospects to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere or to displace the use of some fossil fuels. But they will have to grow very quickly just to keep pace with the added energy being consumed by the airline industry and others.

      Meanwhile, the greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere continue to climb. In his book Heat, journalist Monbiot argues that not only is the scientific consensus that human activities are warming the planet irrefutable but our response to it must be swift and all-encompassing. His prescription, driven by what science is saying about our global climate system being so precariously balanced, is a 90-percent reduction in carbon emissions in just 23 years.

      Under the circumstances, asking consumers to make voluntary payments to offset their greenhouse-gas emissions seems a trifle insufficient.

      The value in the burgeoning offset movement, however, may be that it starts to turn our thinking around, Lingl says. Perhaps it will help to lay the ground for more substantive reforms such as carbon taxes, reforms that daily remind us that we can no longer use the atmosphere as a free waste receptacle. Putting a price on all fossil-fuel use would teach us to tread a little lighter on (and over) this earth, which is precisely what is needed at this time, Lingl says.

      Significantly, even people like Branson have stated their support for such taxes, saying they may be necessary to cut down on greenhouse-gas emissons. But there's a divide between the Bransons of this world and the Lingls. The businessman views high fuel costs and taxes as a tool to force industry innovation, which is not a bad thing. The other sees them as a tool to get people to fly less, a lot less.

      Somehow, it's hard to envision Branson or his friend Gore trumpeting the virtues of fewer flights anytime soon.