Agricultural Offsets

We have a book coming out next month. I don’t expect it to be a bestseller – it’s pretty technical – but the topic is important. The book, titled Harnessing Farms and Forests in the Low Carbon Economy, is a road map for producing carbon offsets based on land management practices. Let me explain.

Carbon offsets are a way to reduce your carbon footprint by funding the negation of carbon emissions elsewhere. They work because the source of carbon dioxide (CO2) doesn’t matter – only total CO2 in the atmosphere matters.

Some feel that offsets are just a way for people to absolve themselves of guilt without making difficult changes. For example, someone who drives a gas-guzzling hummer can buy offsets and then say they aren’t contributing to global warming. Of course it’s better if people minimize their emissions then offset the rest. But regardless, offsets lead to less greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s a good thing. (To learn more about offsets, see this earlier post.)

The problem is, the U.S. offset market is unregulated. Some offsets are real and others are not. Our book is a how-to manual for farmers and foresters on how to create genuine offsets. It also proves to policymakers that there is a way to make offsets valid. You can read more about it here.

Our land has huge potential for offsetting emissions. Green plants take CO2 out of the atmosphere during photosynthesis to make living material in the form of organic carbon. Bugs and animals (including humans) eat the plants, converting the organic carbon back to CO2. We call this latter process respiration.

Most of the time, photosynthesis and respiration are in balance, so there’s no net effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, farmers and foresters can do many things to increase photosynthesis and decrease respiration. For example, photosynthesis is increased when tree cutting is delayed. Respiration is decreased by no-till farming practices. (Tilling increases the respiration of microbes in the soil by improving the conditions for decomposition.)

Practices such as these increase the amount of organic carbon that is stored or sequestered in soils and trees. Each ton of carbon that is sequestered offsets a ton of emissions from burning fossil fuels, which is good for the climate. Farmers and foresters can sell these offsets, which is good for them and good for the economy.

My colleague Zach Willey convened a blue ribbon panel of scientists and challenged them to detail the methodology for producing verifiable land-based carbon offsets. We worked with the Nicholas Institute at Duke University and a scientific review panel chaired by Bill Schlesinger, the Dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, to integrate and edit the work of the scientists.

It has been a Herculean task – I have been working on this project since I first joined Environmental Defense more than two years ago, and Zach has been at it even longer. But last week we delivered the final corrected galley proofs to the publishers at Duke University Press, and we expect the book to be available next month. If you pick up a copy, let me know what you think.

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  1. K.C. Weber
    Posted May 18, 2007 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I would like to respond to Bill Chameides’ remarks on carbon offsets. In this May 17 article he states, “Carbon offsets are a way to reduce your carbon footprint by funding the negation of carbon emissions elsewhere. They work because the source of carbon dioxide (CO2) doesn’t matter – only total CO2 in the atmosphere matters.”

    In an earlier post on March 8 entitled Carbon Offsets Count he states, “The concept of carbon offsets is simple. If your lifestyle uses a lot of energy and you like the way you live, you can still reduce your carbon footprint by funding the negation of carbon emissions elsewhere.”

    I would like to use some allegories to make my point here. Let’s compare the Earth and it’s atmosphere filling with CO 2 gasses to a boat sinking and filling with water. Along with water coming in through a leak, one man, for whatever reason, is dumping water into the boat as well. When confronted he says, “But, I’m also helping to bail the water out. I’m actually bailing out more than what I am dumping in!” Now, while his bailing may be helping, he is still contributing to the problem. As a matter of fact, the water he is pouring in is slowing down both his and other people’s efforts to save the boat. If he really believes there is a problem, he, himself, should not contribute to it.

    Using the reasoning of using carbon offsets is similar to the reasoning of a driver caught speeding and going 90 mph in a 60 mph zone. His explanation to the police is, “But 5 miles back, I was only driving 30 mph in this 60 mph zone, and that makes up for my driving unsafely now!”

    This type of reasoning “sounds” logical, but it does not work in real life. Those who feel that burning CO 2 fuel is such a problem should stop contributing to the problem themselves, otherwise they are slowing down efforts to stop the problem, including their own efforts elsewhere, and they become people who say, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

    If things are really as serious with global warming as many say, wouldn’t it be ironic if people working so hard to prevent global warming in their public lives are the ones to actually tip things over into a really critical situation with what they are doing in their private lives. It would be like a person working strongly and getting hundred’s of people out to vote for a certain candidate in a local election, but because he himself fails to vote, his candidate loses by one vote. In either case, even though a person is doing a lot for a public cause, his efforts could be in vain if he doesn’t follow through in his private life.

    K.C. Weber

  2. Posted May 23, 2007 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your comments. Many folks have this same concern about offsets, so I’m happy for the opportunity to respond.

    The simile you use is compelling, but misleading. People can’t help but emit CO2 as they go about their lives – go to work, keep warm, feed themselves, and so on. Buying offsets negates these unavoidable emissions. This is an effective way to combat global warming because total emissions is what matters.

    When a boat is filling with water and sinking, the goal is to bail out all the water. But our goal is not to remove all CO2 from the atmosphere – that’s neither necessary nor possible. (See my previous article, Vacuum up Greenhouse Gases.) Our goal is to cap CO2 emissions so atmospheric concentrations don’t continue to rise.

    Ultimately, we need to convert our fossil-fuel based energy system to a low-carbon one based on things like wind, solar, and clean coal. But that takes time – time we don’t have given the urgent need to act on global warming now. With offsets, we can reduce net carbon dioxide emissions over the next decade while we convert to a low carbon energy economy. It’s a bridging strategy.

  3. maplewood
    Posted June 2, 2007 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    There is a way that you can do even more than offset your carbon footprint. We’ve started a company called Carbon Farmers of America. We sequester carbon safely in the soil. We’re actually doing the work of pulling CO2 from the atmosphere with our farming practices! For more information about our exciting work go to We absolutely agree that in addition to reducing CO2 in the atmosphere now, we also need to “convert our fossil-fuel based energy system” with low-carbon options.

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