George Stadel When tree falls, we feel a loss

September 26, 2018

I lost a tree this year. It was just a Norway maple, an invasive species, not a noble white oak or sugar maple, but it was big and majestic. A squirrel family occupied one hole in the tree, birds another, and there were several birds’ nests among its branches. On cold winter days mourning doves lined up along one branch, presenting a buffet table for the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk. Woodpeckers feasted on bugs in dead branches. So the loss was felt by many. The loss of shade raised the summer temperature in my neighbor’s house by several degrees and the wind is now stronger without the tree’s mitigation.

The unnoticed but most important loss was that of the tree’s carbon dioxide/oxygen exchange. The tree absorbed CO2, used the carbon to make wood and released oxygen for the squirrels, birds, neighbors and me to breathe. We used to be interested in this process. The loss of trees in the Amazon used to be a major concern of environmentalists.

Then came the idea of “sustainability.” The idea originally was that we were going to run out of oil by 2000 so its consumption couldn’t be sustained. When the burning of fossil fuels began to be seen as the big evil in the production of CO2 caused global warming, the role of trees in absorbing CO2 and releasing oxygen was downgraded as a distraction from the message. “Sustainability” became a bumper sticker slogan of flexible meaning.

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change came out with a huge tome on the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions. In it, the Nobel-Prize-sharing (with Al Gore) organization made a bone-headed, dogma inspired declaration. Wood, they said, is sustainable, unlike fossil fuels, since if you cut down a tree you can plant another one. Therefore, they declared with the logic usually associated with politicians, if you burn wood to generate energy the CO2 emitted doesn’t count! It is “carbon neutral.” This is like saying that if you douse someone with water from a natural spring he doesn’t get wet.

Burning wood to generate energy actually emits more CO2 per unit of energy generated than burning coal; burning wood is only sustainable if you grow it as fast as you burn it; you don’t have to cut down a tree to plant another one; but never mind. All over the world power plants were built to burn wood. England converted their largest coal plant to wood. Why, you ask? Because they could count the imaginary reduction in CO2 emissions toward meeting their goals under the Kyoto and Paris accords, even though CO2 emissions were being increased. It’s an accounting gimmick. More than 200 reputable European scientists wrote the EU begging them to understand that CO2 from burning wood is not different from CO2 from burning coal. It had no effect. The Paris accord is a political document, enforced by political rules, influenced only by politics.

So what place is losing forest faster than the Amazon?

North Carolina.

About 6.5 million tons of wood is shipped annually from North Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana to the Drax power plant in England. Drax burns 14.5 million tons of wood a year, more than 300 railroad cars full a day, 120 percent of the UK’s entire wood production, to generate 0.74 percent of the UK’s energy needs. 23 million tons of carbon dioxide is spewed into the atmosphere every year by Drax but it doesn’t count! The Drax website and news releases claim CO2 emissions have been reduced by 80 percent, because the 23 million tons doesn’t count!

It takes decades to grow a tree that is burned at Drax in seconds. Planting a tree for every tree cut doesn’t make it “carbon neutral” at that rate. The bigger and older a tree, the more CO2 it absorbs. It takes decades before the new tree absorbs CO2 at the same rate as that of the burned tree at the time it was cut. But even if you could grow trees fast enough to make burning them sustainable, that’s irrelevant if the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions.

Not long ago, using less paper was considered a civic duty to prevent the depletion of forests. There were campaigns against paper bags. Now paper is “sustainable” so we must use paper bags rather than plastic. Mandating putting leaves in paper bags is even said by the city of Stamford to be good for the environment! The flexible use of “sustainable” conflates the undesirable effects of producing CO2 by burning oil and coal or of the imperishability of plastic, with whether we’re going to run out of petroleum.

The undesirability of plastics is that they are non-biodegradable. Reebok has produced a shoe sole made from a plastic derived in part from corn oil, or “made from corn,”as they say. They say this is “sustainable” because you can grow corn but not petroleum. So their goal is to preserve petroleum? This plastic, a polyurethane, is also non-biodegradable. It is no better for the environment than polyurethane derived from petroleum. It does raise the price of corn however, which is important to people who depend on eating it.

If you hear politicians, activists or editorial writers say government needs to do more for “sustainability,” remember that the word is just a bumper sticker slogan.

George Stadel is a Stamford resident.

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