Hi Everyone, Dan from Giving Green here. Just a note that we’ll be doing a big re-launch of our website and product (with recommendations for the 2020 giving season!) in about a month’s time. We’re looking forward to sharing more details of our strategy in a post here around that time. In the meantime, happy to answer questions here or chat with interested parties.
One of recommended carbon offsets is BURN. If I understand correctly, BURN provides households with more efficient stoves, which allows them to use less wood or charcoal for cooking. So carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere as CO2 remains in the form of trees. On the other hand, Giving Green does not recommend forestry offsets:
Of particular concern is “permanence”, which refers to the fact that in order to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere, trees must stay alive for many years. This adds an additional layer of uncertainty to any forestry project that is nearly impossible to resolve. To make things more complicated, the relationship between forests and global warming is complicated, and there is some controversy in the scientific community as to how much changing forest cover affects the temperature of the planet.
This seems inconsistent to me. Am I missing something?
Hi Maria, thanks for the note. I understand the point you’re making, but I think the case of forestry and cookstoves are really quite different. The difference is that with clean cookstove (or really any project that improves energy efficiency), you permanently remove demand for energy, which is not reversible.
Let’s take a classic impermanence example around forestry offsets. A project works for a year to conserve a hectare of forest that would have been counterfactually cut down . They are issued X carbon credits for this conservation, and sell these credits as offsets in the market. The next year, the projects shuts down (due to lack of funding, political reasons, whatever). The the trees are simply cut down the next year. So although people bought “offsets” for X tons of carbon, really their purchase only went towards delaying those emissions for one year. And that’s if you’re lucky- maybe two acres get cut down the next year to make up for lost time, feeding pent-up demand for forest products.
Now let’s take the example of stoves. A project distributes clean cookstoves to a bunch of households. After a year they verify that these cookstoves are still in use, and they are issued X carbon credits for fuel that would have been counterfactually consumed. No matter what happens in the future, the demand for fuel the previous year has been erased, and is not coming back. Now, I understand what you are saying- that fuel that has not been burned in the stove in theory flows back up the supply chain and results in fewer trees being cut down. But the demand pressure to cut the tree down has been permanently removed.
I know this isn’t perfect. For instance, if the forest that produces the charcoal burns down, then all the efforts we make to reduce fuel usage go up in smoke. Also, reduced charcoal demand could cause prices to go down causing a rebound effect. But I do think it’s fundamentally better than just temporarily preventing a patch of forest from being cut down without addressing any of the demand issues.
Also, it’s not that we think forestry projects are fundamentally bad. We just think there are so many things that could go wrong that they are fiendishly hard to verify effectiveness. We’re definitely keeping our eyes open for forestry offsets that can address all the issues, and hope to re-open this search next year. (Note that permanence is only one issues. Forestry offsets also suffer from hard-to-validate counterfactuals, and “leakage” in which trees are just cut down in other areas.)
Finally, in the end I don’t want to spend too much time defending any particular offset, even the ones we recommend. I think that fundamentally, the idea that you can buy an offset and causally undo emissions with certainty is simply flawed. The world is too complex, and this level of certainty doesn’t exist. We view “good” offset projects as ones that are doing good work and verifiably reducing emissions, but reject the idea that offsets can or should be used to wash away one’s carbon sins.