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No, a trillion more trees, baby-step oil company reforms won’t fix global warming

Mar 5, 2020, 12:17 PM

Scientists at an Antarctic research station recently recorded a one-day air temperature of just under 70 degrees, a balmy afternoon in a region of the world unaccustomed to them.

In fact, as far as researchers can tell, it has never been that warm in Antarctica before. The record was set against an increasingly scary global backdrop of rising temperatures and seas; more powerful storms, droughts and floods; a reduced Arctic ice cap, and accelerated melting and movement of glaciers around the globe - including Antarctica.

The culprit behind this crisis is the nearly 200 years that humans have spent burning fossil fuels - primarily coal and oil - for energy. So it was mildly heartening to see that BP, the London-based oil and gas giant, has promised to achieve “net-zero emissions” for its operations by 2050. That doesn’t mean BP is getting out of the oil-and-gas business. Rather, the corporation pledged to eliminate some emissions from its drilling, processing and business operations, and to compensate for others through investments in green technologies, reforestation projects and similar offset strategies. The announcement followed earlier pledges by such European-based oil companies as Royal Dutch Shell, Total and Equino to reduce emissions from their operations, though the BP pledge goes further.

None, of course, goes far enough. And new BP CEO Bernard Looney acknowledged the corporation had not settled on a strategy to achieve its net-zero emissions goal. Those details will come in September.

But at least the goal was set, which is far more than has been done by American-based oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron, which have acknowledged the role of greenhouse gas emissions in propelling climate change but have done little to address their contribution. Both are part of the corporate-driven Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, whose stated purpose is to reduce “our collective methane emissions by more than one-third” by essentially stopping leaks and moving the captured methane to where it could be burned.

Of course, baby steps by a handful of oil and gas companies aren’t going to do much to combat overall emissions. Similarly, the Trillion Trees Initiative, which President Trump touted in his State of the Union address, won’t do an awful lot, either. In fact, it’s one of those fig-leaf solutions that offer a pretense of significant action against global warming while ignoring the most pressing problem - the burning of fossil fuels in the first place.

Which is not to suggest that reforestation is a bad idea; in fact, continued forest clearing in the Amazon is exacerbating global warming and must stop. Because forests store carbon, restoring them could help capture and slow the accretion of carbon in the atmosphere, where it traps heat. One study found that the Earth’s ecosystems could handle an additional 25% of forests above what it holds now (though increased droughts and desertification related to climate change could whittle away at that), compensating for about 20 years of human-produced carbon. So large-scale reforestation falls in the category of “couldn’t hurt.”

Nevertheless, far, far more needs to be done, beginning with converting our global reliance on energy from fossil fuels to renewables as fast as is humanly possible. The best way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is to not put it there in the first place.

So in that regard, the danger of the Trillion Trees Initiative is that pro-oil business conservatives will wave it around as a solution to global warming. But that’s like someone hoping to lose a lot of weight by taking daily walks while still eating the same calorie-rich foods.

The nation, and the world, need sober and aggressive policy changes if we are to stand any chance of mitigating the worst effects of global warming. Despite heightened awareness and national pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, global carbon emissions continue to rise. It will be expensive to adapt to the new climate reality and to fundamentally change the way humankind produces and uses energy, but it must be done before the supposedly most intelligent of the animal species manages through greed and willful ignorance to propel the collapse of global ecosystems.

Guest Editorial