At their worst, carbon offsets are opaque, morally-ambiguous items that reek of guilt, arcane rites of penance and the potential for profiteering. When you buy an offset it's hard to tell whether your money will actually be used to plant the promised grove of trees or install, for example, a slew of compact florescent light bulbs. It's even tougher to ensure that those trees will sequester a meaningful amount of carbon, or that the light bulbs will remain intact. There's enough uncertainty in the whole process to leave you wondering what exactly you spent your money on, and whether your purchase had anything to do with the stated goal of combating global warming.
So thank goodness the folks at Beef Producer Magazine have shed some light on the situation. They've gone right ahead and grabbed the truth by the throat with an article titled, "Carbon Credits are Easy Money." (The link will connect you to a search page. Click on the top entry to read the Beef Producer article.)
You may have already guessed where this is going. Here's the lede from the story:
Art Brownlee says he’s not that concerned about carbon sequestration, but he’s certainly willing to take the money of those who are.
“Of course the green lobby is the foundation for all this, and as far as the science goes, I think we’re a country running on a perception,” Brownlee says. “But I’m more than willing to help them assuage their guilt, or whatever it is, to ‘save the Earth.’ ”
Brownlee says he was already managing his rangeland near Ashby, Neb., using planned grazing and he already had records, so it only required a little extra effort.
When Leah Carson, the rangeland management specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service Upper Loup Natural Resources District approached him about selling a soil carbon contract, he was quite willing.
Fact is, this opportunity for beef producers who have done a good job managing their grazing looks, right now, like a no-brainer of a decision — like free money with few strings attached and no government entanglements.
From there, the article becomes a primer on the ins and outs of bringing just one more agricultural commodity to market. Though in this case, the market happens to be the Chicago Climate Exchange and the commodity a rangeland carbon offset. Ranchers who adopt soil-saving practices -- such as reducing the density of their livestock on the land and consistently rotating their animals through separate pastures -- can augment the amount of carbon their land sequesters. They can then make a buck off the deal by translating that sequestered carbon into an offset contract.
But as High Country News has pointed out in the past, there's a crux to the issue and it goes by the ungainly name, "additionality." Offsets aren't worth much unless they cause carbon to be sequestered that otherwise wouldn't have been. Buying an offset on land that has already being managed in a climate-friendly manner doesn't cause any new carbon to be captured.
But then again, Beef Producer doesn't assume its readers are interested in the carbon side of the equation, which is why the magazine gives this Wyoming rancher the final word:
“I can go home and walk across my ranch and move the cattle, or I can go home and walk across my ranch and move the cattle and get paid for it.”