MY TURN: Business tops climate for Douglas

Global Justice Ecology Project’s Biofuels Specialist, Rachel Smolker’s op-ed piece challenging Douglas’s climate change proposals ran in the Burlington Free Press.

MY TURN: Business tops climate for Douglas
By Rachel Smolker

– December 31, 2007 –
Jim Douglas is clearly more interested in doing business than addressing climate change. Last session, he vetoed a forward-looking bill that would have created green jobs and significantly reduced Vermont’s emissions. Instead he proposes the same false solutions to global warming that are being pursued at the international level: creating carbon markets and biofuels.

Carbon trade: Trading in carbon credits, enshrined within the Kyoto Protocol, turns the atmosphere and the carbon absorbing biosphere into a commodity that can be bought and sold. It is a “convenient lie,” profitable for polluting corporations, ineffective in addressing climate change and disastrous for the poor. Carbon markets permit wealthy polluters to avoid reducing emissions by purchasing credits elsewhere: thus far proven both ineffective and inequitable.

Many credited projects have in fact resulted in a net increase in greenhouse-gas emissions, while also violating human rights. Carbon markets permit a tradeoff between carbon extracted from below ground, where it was safely sequestered, with carbon that is circulating above ground, where it contributes to global warming: for example, offsetting emissions from a coal-burning utility by planting trees. Marketing carbon depends on being able to accurately measure and control carbon flows, which is more often than not virtually impossible. A “Vermont Green Standard” would essentially sell off our forests to companies as “credits,” allowing them to pollute more.

Biofuels: The second pillar of Jim’s plan is biofuels. Corn ethanol in the  U.S. is a massively subsidized disaster. Growing corn causes erosion of precious and dwindling topsoil, increases fertilizer and pesticide use, and requires irrigation. Converting corn to ethanol requires polluting refineries and massive use of scarce freshwater. A recent study by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen demonstrated that greenhouse-gas emissions from fertilizer use outweigh benefits from displacing fossil-fuel use. The diversion of corn and other foodcrops, meanwhile, has contributed to a murderous global increase in food prices. In South America and Asia, biofuels from sugar cane, soy and palm oil are driving deforestation, and therefore resulting in yet more carbon emissions, while also displacing people and food production. In Asia, peatland forests are destroyed to make way for palm oil for biodiesel. Massive carbon emissions result not only from deforestation but also from the oxidation and burning of the peat, now responsible for a whopping 8 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, causing Indonesia to rank third for emissions, behind only the U.S. and China.

Jim is banking on using switchgrass and wood biomass to produce cellulosic ethanol, supposedly better because they will not compete with food crops or agricultural land. The problem is that the technologies are not yet viable and it may be years before they are. Also, the quantity of biomass required to produce enough ethanol to have a significant impact is staggering! Refineries must be able to ensure adequate and sustainable nearby supplies. The biotechnology companies know this, and are eagerly pursuing the development of genetically engineered (GE) trees — because in their view it is inevitable that massive industrial monoculture plantations of high-yield trees will be needed. Tree monocultures are essentially cornfields with trees instead of corn stalks, and GE trees will inevitably contaminate native forests, with unknown and irreversible consequences. Further, cellulosic ethanol requires enzymes from GE microbes, opening a “Pandora’s Box” of contamination risks.

Creating “smoke and mirror” carbon markets and pretending we can substitute biomass for fossil fuels is hopelessly inadequate. Vermont can truly become a leader by directing resources toward real, immediately available and proven solutions, many recommended in the Climate Change Commission report: dramatic improvements to building and heating efficiency and public transportation systems. The time is long overdue for tough and effective decisions, Jim, even if they are not the most profitable.

Rachel Smolker, Ph.D., of Hinesburg is a research biologist with the Global Justice Ecology Project.

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