By Chris Lang
On 6 July 2019, Patrick Pouyanné, the CEO of French oil and gas company Total, announced that his company would invest US$100 million per year in forest protection. Total’s announcement comes shortly after similar announcements by Shell and Eni to offset some of their emissions with forest conservation projects.
Oil companies have known that burning fossil fuels would lead to climate breakdown for decades. But they have continued to expand their operations. About one-third more oil is burned today than in the late 1990s.
It’s not yet clear whether Total’s forest finance is to generate offsets, or just greenwash aimed at distracting the public from its climate destroying operations.
Alain Karsenty is a researcher at the Centre for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD). In a recent article for the French think tank Telos, titled “Total and forests”, Karsenty asks the following question:
Does planting trees or protecting forests offset greenhouse gas emissions in such a way that it can allow us to talk about “compensation” or even “carbon neutrality”, especially in the case of oil and gas companies with a significant direct and indirect footprint?
Karsenty starts by acknowledging that when trees are growing, they absorb CO2. He notes that there are “very large uncertainties” about the figures, but forests, grasslands, crops, soils and so on remove about 29% of the CO2 emitted each year. Oceans absorb about 22%. This is the biological “carbon sink”
“Very useful,” Karsenty writes, “but insufficient to prevent the growth of the carbon dioxide stock in the atmosphere by about 17 billion tonnes (17 Gt CO2) per year, not to mention other greenhouse gases.”
Karsenty then points out three major problems:
- the area of land that would need to be planted with trees – or protected as forests (with potential competition for food crops);
- the time needed for trees to absorb CO2 (when emissions from burning fossil fuels are immediately released to the atmosphere); and
- the length of time that the carbon has to be stored in the trees and forests.
Karsenty looks in more detail at the third point.
How long can forests store carbon?
According to the conventions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a CO2 molecule remains in the atmosphere for 100 years (i.e. it has a “radiative forcing” effect for a period of 100 years). So, CO2 has to be stored in trees, plants, and soils for 100 years to completely neutralise the impact on the climate of CO2 released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.
“This is more a necessary convention for comparison with other greenhouse gases than atmospheric chemistry data,” Karsenty writes, “since a fraction of the CO2 remains in the atmosphere for a very long time.”
Unlike methane, there is no chemical reaction that takes place in the atmosphere to remove CO2. It is removed by plants or the oceans.
And the more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the longer CO2 will stay in the atmosphere on average.
Karsenty notes that in his book “Chemistry of the Climate System”, Detlev Möller calculates that at 2010 levels of CO2, there is an average residence time of 500 years for CO2 in the atmosphere. With a concentration of 500 parts per million in the atmosphere, this would increase to 650 years.
Möller writes that,
“It is, therefore, likely that the removal capacity of our climate system for the recovery of anthropogenic atmospheric CO2 is in the order of 1000 years.”
Karsenty adds, “In fact, a complete neutralisation of emissions would require almost perpetual storage. But who can provide such a guarantee?”
The worse the climate crisis becomes, the more dangerous it becomes to risk storing carbon in trees and forests. Karsenty writes that,
The life span of trees (and the carbon stock built up during their growth) can be very long, since there are 3,000 year-old sequoias. The problem is that with global warming, forests are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Fires, pathogen attacks (bark beetles, among others, contribute to high mortality in forests in northern and eastern Europe), water stress linked to increasingly frequent and acute drought episodes, degradation linked to timber extraction, and deforestation linked to land demand for different uses (deforestation and degradation could together account for 15-17% of annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions). Studies suggest that tropical forests, which now store about 40% of terrestrial carbon (including soil carbon), are already no longer a carbon sink (a net absorber) but a net source of emissions, due to these different factors. And with global warming, this shift from a sink state (absorber) to a source state (emitter), which is especially sensitive when severe droughts affect the Amazon and increase tree mortality, can only get worse.
The Achilles heel of carbon credits
Karsenty asks whether Total’s proposed forest preservation and reforestation projects are additional.
When Total CEO Pouyanné announced that Total would invest US$100 million per year in trees, he said, “The most effective way to eliminate carbon today, for less than US$10 a tonne, is through reforestation. It’s not philanthropy, it’s medium- and long-term investment.”
Pouyanné anticipates that his company will invest US$100 million a year in profitable forestry projects. Karsenty points out that if the projects are indeed profitable, then there is a good chance they will be carried out anyway – without Total.
Karsenty defines additionality as meaning that the results of the project are “strictly the product of the efforts associated with the project, and would not have occurred in a reference situation ‘without a project’ (or ‘business-as-usual’).”
And he points out the problem with additionality:
Everything depends of the credibility of the adopted reference, a scenario that is by definition unverifiable (if the project is carried out, the ‘no project’ situation cannot be observed).
This problem is the Achilles heel of the ‘carbon credits’ that circulate on the markets. Some of them, particularly for conservation projects, anticipate that, without the project, the rate of deforestation would explode. Under these conditions, the project promoter may, even if actual deforestation increases, declare that “the worst has been avoided”, and issue “carbon credits”.
Total invested US$330 million to convert its La Mède biorefinery to use palm oil. Karsenty notes that palm oil, “has made and continues to make a significant contribution to deforestation and the destruction of tropical peatlands”.
Total states that the biorefinery will only use palm oil certified under either the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil or the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification Scheme.
But Karsenty points out that generating demand for palm oil in biofuels is likely to result in higher prices – and not just for certified palm oil. If the profitability of the crop increases, that means that producers are more likely to develop new plantation in remote areas, or in forests with steep slopes, or in swampy forests. The result will be an increase in emissions from deforestation.
Total’s oil exploitation in tropical forest area is another thorny issue, Karsenty writes. In Uganda, Total is the main operator of an oil project in Lake Albert and Murchison Falls National Park. Earlier today, Friends of the Earth and four Ugandan organisations announced that they are taking Total to court for its failure to elaborate and implement its human rights and environmental vigilance plan in Uganda.
In the Republic of Congo, Total has two oil blocks. Neither is in operation, so far. But one overlaps a National Park, and the other is in the Cuvette Centrale Peatlands, the world’s largest area of tropical peatland. The Cuvette Centrale stores vast amounts of carbon.
In order to stand a 50% chance of keeping global heating below 2°C, we have to leave about one-third of known oil reserves underground. “Priority should be given to the most vulnerable areas, such as peatlands and protected areas,” Karsenty writes.
Even if it doesn’t result in carbon offsets, Total’s announcement about investing in forest protection and tree planting is greenwash aimed at diverting public attention from Total’s other more profitable and more destructive activities.