Letter to the editor: Trees no answer for carbon use

In a front-page story, Addison Independent, Dec, 15, 2016, Middlebury College President, Laurie Patton announced that the college is now carbon neutral, meaning that it has brought its carbon footprint to zero. Bill McKibben says the college has won an important battle in an all-out war on climate change.
I will to try to be nice in my reply. But, in sum, the method used, sequestration, to reach carbon neutrality is bogus. It is a slight of hand unworthy of the integrity and professionalism of Middlebury College. It allows the college to go on burning fossil fuels and at the same time say that CO2 and other pollutants produced are neutralized by their trees.
How did the college reach carbon neutrality? First off I am really glad the college is working in this direction. However, I don’t think it has been achieved in a meaningful way with their carbon sequestration theory.
So how did the college reduce CO2 output? First by burning “locally sourced wood chips” to provide 75 percent of the heat and 20 percent of electricity for the college. And importantly they installed many energy saving practices on campus. These actions, according to the article, reduced its carbon dioxide footprint by 53 percent. These projects are commendable.
The other 47 percent of CO2 reduction was achieved, per the article, “by claiming carbon offsets (in a process called sequestration) from 2,100 acres of Green Mountain forestland, owned by the college, preserved in perpetuity around its Bread Loaf campus in Ripton.”
So the college is claiming that 47 percent of their reduction in carbon dioxide production is being offset, sequestered, by trees that were already doing this long before the college ever existed. And the college has the illogical notion that all of a sudden these trees will take on an added responsibility to sequester 47 percent of the college’s CO2 output from burning fossil fuels. This makes no sense to me. I mean the trees are up there doing their thing as part of the natural CO2 cycle for thousands of years and now all of a sudden the college can call on them to do double duty. No wonder the climate change deniers have doubts about the climate activists.
That forests can increase future sequestration of carbon over long periods of time is highly problematic and subject to a variety of circumstances that may or may not actually end up in carbon sequestration. Factors such as maturity of the trees, are they young and rapidly growing and therefore sequestering carbon? Other factors are level of CO2 in the air, temperature, level of nutrition in the forest and there are more. According to the literature counting on temperate forest for increased sequestration is very iffy.
Now I could be wrong, but it seems beyond reason to claim that forest land preserved forever can be called an “offset for carbon dioxide” produced by the college’s use of fossil fuels. This claim simply doesn’t make any sense. For if it did make sense then all of Vermont and probably all of New England is, undoubtedly, carbon neutral and in no need of doing anything further to reduce CO2 simply because New England is something like 75 percent trees which are happily gobbling up our CO2 and making us blissfully carbon neutral in the process. Makes me feel strangely unconcerned about driving a gas-guzzling car.
If you think about the big picture, atmospheric CO2 started increasing with the industrial revolution and has continued to increase even though the forests of Vermont and New England have made a dramatic come back over the past 100 years from our lands being clear cut to the vast forests we have today. Yet atmospheric CO2 continues to increase. Obviously if the forests were going to solve the problem they would had accomplished it by now.
Sorry but it makes no sense for the college, with all its good intentions, to claim a reduction in climate changing carbon dioxide by claiming the trees are doing it, and all the while still burning fossil fuels. The more I think about this preposterous scheme the more annoyed I become.
I believe climate change is real and manmade and we must take drastic steps to reduce all climate change gasses not just CO2. But counting sequestration by northern forests is really stretching logic.
Paul Stone

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