Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Paying companies not to cut down trees

If you want to understand how tricky - and important - climate change agreements are, take a look at forests.

At meetings like the Copenhagen summit, governments and industry are working hard to build advantage into any agreements.

The big picture is that annual emissions limits of some kind will likely be set.

And a cap and trade system will let people make money if they find ways to cut production of greenhouse gases.

A B.C. pulp mill, for example, might now be producing 150,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year burning oil and gas.

Switching to wood waste as fuel for much of the year could reduce that by 100,000 tonnes. Under a cap-and-trade system, the company could then sell those credits to another company - perhaps an oilsands developer - that wanted to exceed its cap.

Europe already has a carbon market. Based on prices there - about $18 a tonne - the pulp company could sell the credits today for $1.8 million. . (All the numbers are based on real-world examples.)

It's an incentive to find ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As caps are reduced, the credits will be more valuable. B.C.'s carbon tax is based on a value of $15 tonne now, doubling in the next three years.

Cutting down trees generates a lot of greenhouse gases. Trees, as big plants, take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. The carbon dioxide is stored in the wood.

So a giant coastal red cedar represents a big carbon sink. The trees can live 1,400 years. That's long time to be sequestering carbon.

Here's where it gets complicated and interesting. An old red cedar could weigh 1,000 tonnes. If you were about to cut down the tree, you could - depending on the carbon rules - get paid $18,000 a year to put the chainsaw away.

Imagine thousands of square kilometres of coastal forest and the carbon credits to be sold from private land, First Nations territory and Crown land.

With the right rules, there is big money to be made and a chance for B.C. to increase emissions from other sources because of its forests.

But negotiating the right rules - part of the Copenhagen process - is tricky.

If the tree falls down and rots, or is burned in a forest fire, all that carbon is eventually released. Global warming means forests are degrading more quickly - so quickly Canada doesn't want forest emissions to be counted under a cap and trade system.

There are a lot of questions. Should B.C. be able to claim credits for not cutting trees in existing? If a company chooses not to log 100 acres of woodland, how are carbon credits determined?

Should companies that produce lumber, which continues to hold carbon, claim a partial credit? What's the greenhouse-gas reduction value of replanting trees to absorb carbon over the next few centuries?

Those questions will be sorted out over the next few years by negotiators in expensive suits. Billions of dollars rest on the outcomes.

And a lot of jobs. The forest industry has struggled for at least a decade. Now companies could have a financial incentive not to log.

The theory is that other areas of the economy will benefit and grow. But the company selling the carbon credits could invest the money anywhere. The buyers could be in another province or U.S. state.

The stakes are remarkably high. And the potential for building in ways to game the system is huge.

Despite all that, cap and trade is an important part of any effort to reduce emissions. The system will encourage innovation and allow flexibility for companies or countries that face challenges in meeting the targets necessary to greenhouse gas reductions. (A carbon tax, like British Columbia's, achieves some of the same goals although with a narrower focus.)

But defining, winning agreement on and managing an effective, equitable system is going to be a big challenge.

Footnote: B.C. was the only province to increase industrial greenhouse gas emissions in 2008. One exception was the pulp and paper industries, as mills took down time because of poor markets. Once the cap and trade system is in place, the chance to sell credits will be another incentive to reduce operations when times are tough.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Back again, with the same old resolution

It’s been 10 years since we welcomed a new millennium. I said goodbye to the 20th century in a high school gym rented for a big party of extended family and friends. The midnight song — my choice — was Great Big Sea’s defiant version of R.E.M.’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Of course, every year, every day, can be the end of the world as we know it. A few dozen people can, probably to their own amazement, succeed in a wild plan to fly planes into skyscrapers. A few hundred business guys can attract trillions of dollars into investment vehicles that make no sense, and then stand back when it all collapses.

And one person close to you can soar, or fall. Really, that’s the end of the world as we know it. The 9/11 attacks led to two destructive wars, hundreds of thousands of lost lives and a huge erosion of freedom. The financial collapse cost people their jobs, their savings and their homes.

But when most of us look back over the decade, those things don’t defines it for us.

Ten years ago, my partner and I had three teenagers at home. All three are launched, wonderful people making their way in the world, which is of course a challenge in its own right. I could ask for nothing more from the decade.

We had one grandchild, Paxton. Now we have four — Zachary and Gage and Owen — and Kaleb and Spencer are part of the extended crew. Together they have had way more impact than the 9/11 terror. 

Back in that last century, everyone had different jobs. We didn’t have an RV. We’ve logged thousands of miles since, with children and grandchildren and by ourselves

We had four parents. Now we have three. That’s a gap in everyone’s lives that won’t go away.

And we’re all quite a bit older, kids, grandkids, parents and my partner and me. Ten years will do that.

I’m troubled by 9/11 and its consequences. Sad that Americans have not yet rebuilt the towers. Angry that destructive financial frauds shattered so many lives. Discouraged by politicians who  too often act in ways unworthy of the people who elected them.

But really, the last 10 years are defined by how things went for the people who I know.

Newspapers are big on end-of-year stories. Partly, that’s because we need to fill a lot of pages between Christmas and New Year’s and generally not much is happening. So we write about newsmakers and memorable events. We hope you will share the idea that these things matter to your life.

They should matter, of course. Other people’s children are being killed in Afghanistan while mine are doing wonderfully on two continents. They have been sent there because the MPs who represent us judge the sacrifice worth making. But would they send their children? I’d urge mine not to go.

Really, the biggest stories of 2009 aren’t about politicians or generals or CEOs.

The new baby, the lost family member, the sickness, the recovery. The wedding, the separation, the happy night of food and laughter. The people who matter to us.

I hope people will keep paying attention to the big public issues in the New Year.

But even more, I hope they will pay attention to the people in their lives. Everything starts with paying attention. Noticing a child who seems sad, or a parent who is worried, or a friend who is struggling. Hearing a small sad story and realizing you can change the ending with a little money or time or a kind word.

And of course, paying attention to how you feel — what makes you happy, angry, peaceful. Once you start doing that, you can think about changing yourself and the world around you to make it a better place. It starts, I think, in the quiet of your own home. And what better time than now, when family and friends tend to be at hand and strangers a little more open.

This year, make a resolution to pay attention, to people and places and the way the light strikes the trees and the music sounds in the evening air. Everything can start with those simple acts.