“Carbon Neutral” is Just Forest Fiction

Atmospheric CO2 is created by combustion.

by Dave Stevens 

Stellar processes excepted, carbon is neither created nor destroyed. As an element it enters readily into combinations with other elements but is not destroyed. Its compounds are sometimes broken down or altered but this does not destroy or create carbon. All ordinary chemical processes are carbon neutral. 

Carbon neutrality is a concept developed to fend off criticisms that combustion contributes to global warming. It is sufficiently pervasive that defenders of the status quo can use it reflexively. 

Forest-related combustion is sometimes said to be carbon neutral, especially by actual or would-be polluters or their apologists. Like all good bullshit, this bs contains just enough of an atom of truth (or at least defensibility) that there is something in it that can be pointed to as fact. Like all good double-talk it is important that the factoid is left unexamined so that it can work away in the background. 

Global warming is too real to deny flatly (except in Flatland south of the 49th parallel) and the human contribution is decisive. The best science available is that we will reach a tipping point at about 400 parts per million of CO2; we are currently at 382 ppm. The interesting part of the science in this regard is that CO2 is the greenhouse gas of interest, elemental carbon doesn’t enter into it. And atmospheric CO2 is very much created. By combustion. 

If wood is burned CO2 is given off, no one questions that. The issue surrounding wood combustion is only whether the combustion products contribute to global warming. Indisputably they do. Trees, as they grow, sequester CO2 which is given off as they burn. Net lapse of time, 300 years. When burned only the carbon tucked away in the wood is emitted to the atmosphere from which it came. Net flow, zero. Net lapse of time, 5 minutes. 

But the issue with global warming is not whether basic plant chemistry is wrong, but whether wood combustion contributes to global warming. It does. The rate of emissions to the air from burning is many orders of magnitude greater than the rate of sequestration. I make it 30 million times faster. The release of CO2 from wood combustion is a net contributor to global warming. The issue is exactly that we are releasing CO2 into the atmosphere at a rate far beyond the capacity of natural systems to absorb it, giving rise to warming. 

As part of its negotiations with respect to its fulfillment of the Kyoto Protocol, Canada achieved an exemption from counting CO2 released from forest related activities. So CO2 released from forest burning isn’t counted in the Kyoto equation. But it does count in the real world. It makes matters worse. Planting a 100 gram seedling does not balance the carbon released from burning the residue generated while logging and milling a three hundred year old tree. Except in the very long term. And in the very long term we are all dead. 


Dave Stevens, curmudgeon-in-training, is the President of CHOKED, a small very non-profit environmental group in Smithers, BC. When not fulminating about poor air quality, Dave is given to timber framing and rants. You can email him at geek@uniserve.com

[From WS November/December 2006]

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