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Gov. Dunleavy’s carbon math is bad


Gov. Dunleavy’s carbon math is bad

Sep 21, 2023 | 8:00 pm ET
By Marilyn Sigman
Gov. Dunleavy’s carbon math is bad
The Interior boreal forest is seen on Sept. 20. 2022, from an overlook along the Parks Highway on the edge of Fairbanks. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy persuaded Alaska’s Legislature to create a carbon offset program that monetizes the carbon dioxide that trees on state land breathe in and the carbon they store through photosynthesis. His 10-year budget plan relies heavily on filling gaps from dwindling oil revenues with carbon credit cash. Speaking with journalist Nathaniel Herz, he made it clear that the program had nothing to do with climate change mitigation. 

As Herz wrote of Dunleavy: “Rubbing his thumb and forefinger together, he said the growing markets for carbon storage offer the state something it needs: money … ‘A lot of people’ believe that carbon emissions are driving global warming.” Herz wrote that Dunleavy is not one of them, but he wrote that the governor added, “Alaska is here to help them.”

People who do believe aren’t fooled into thinking that Alaska’s program will be helping to move toward the goal of zero net carbon by 2050 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned will be necessary to prevent ecosystems from unraveling and severe weather from becoming catastrophic. The credits are a pay-to-pollute mechanism for offsetting “new” carbon emissions (including from the combustion of “old” fossil fuel carbon) or a greenwashing opportunity for companies to claim virtue while avoiding using less energy or the shift to clean, renewable energy sources.

Dunleavy projects that the state will receive billions of dollars in revenue by comparing the 145 million acres of state lands to the $100 million that the Sealaska Corporation was paid to “leave trees standing” on 165,000 acres for 100 years. Of the state’s 145 million acres, however, only about 125 million are inventoried forest lands. Four and a half million are classified commercial forestlands. Legislators were assured by Dunleavy the state will have its forest cake and eat it too; timber harvests won’t decrease. The threat to trees that are storing carbon which the state must prove for certification of carbon credits comes credibly only from the state itself. It’s more of a hostage bluff situation.

The Dunleavy administration is unlikely to leave a lot of trees standing for 100 years except for the ones they actually never planned to harvest. Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner John Boyle wants to manage for more merchantable trees in Interior Alaska for future harvests. Where scientists see spruce bark beetles moving into Interior Alaska as a consequence of climate change, Boyle sees opportunities to harvest fire-prone, beetle-killed trees and live trees that might potentially be attacked by the beetles. The carbon offsets would presumably be sold on the regrowing trees. A preemptive cut-first approach will remove carbon storage that has to be recaptured through photosynthesis, setting back a carbon “break-even” point by decades.

The state can’t trade in the California mandatory cap-and-trade market. The voluntary international forestry carbon market is proving ineffective at actually offsetting emissions. A series of investigations reported by the nonprofit Guardian news outlet in January 2023, found “phantomoffsets in more than 90% of tropical forest projects certified by the industry’s leading standard and overestimates of the actual forest saved from removal by 400% per project. In August, they reported that since many of the offsets were “worthless,” demand had slumped. A whistleblower fraud and misconduct warning was issued in June 2023.

In the context of the goal of zero net carbon by 2050, the state carbon offset program has a good chance of complete irrelevance. The only reason for hope lies in the 10% of revenues the new law requires go into a renewable energy fund.

People who believe that carbon emissions are driving climate change can do the math. Companies who are greenwashing their continuing and new emissions don’t care. Dunleavy usually fails to mention that BP was on the other side of the Sealaska deal, offsetting 100 million tons of emissions from not only the Prudhoe Bay oilfield but also future development BP hoped to do within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Australian oil company Santos’ website announced the forestry carbon offsets they purchased will make the Pikka oil field net zero for operations. It’s the use of the oil by consumers that will generate new emissions that won’t be offset.

In the context of business as usual in Alaska, carbon credits are a moneymaking scheme in the tradition of Soapy Smith. Money may well change hands in the flawed carbon market. Alaskans should expect more from Dunleavy, who taught math and science among other subjects. The only green math he’s doing is in units of cold, hard cash which might prove to be phantoms. It’s likely to be a big fat zero for the planet unless the 10% of carbon offset revenues that go into a renewable energy fund are wisely spent.