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January 31, 2020

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

Each acre of farmland which is turned into a woodlot removes 5.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for the next 20 years (numbers adapted from the UN IPCC Report).  This is atmospheric carbon reduction equivalent to taking 1.25 cars off the road or installing 2.5 air source heat pumps. Since we currently have a surplus of dairy land, woodlot conversion should be a major part – perhaps the major part - of Vermont efforts to be “carbon neutral”.

Photosynthesis breaks down CO2 into oxygen and carbon, which is stored in the woody parts of the tree, the roots, and the soil. Fields which are grazed or grow corn or hay also convert CO2; but, as the grass or corn is eaten or decays, the carbon is recombined with oxygen and released into the atmosphere; and so there is little, if any, net reduction in atmospheric CO2.

Listings of the prices of Vermont farms show that, at the low end, farmland can be purchased for less than $1000/acre. Any program to buy up this land would obviously start with the cheapest and least productive land, especially farms which are already out of business. Planting trees in cleared soil costs less than $100/acre. Since there are more dairy farms in Vermont than there is demand for their milk, dairy farmers would benefit either from being able to sell their land or from the fact that other farmers have sold. If farms with runoff problems are replanted in trees, Vermont lakes will benefit as well and the cost of lake cleanup will be reduced.

It costs at least ten time as much per ton of annual CO2 reduction to use electric car incentives as it does to convert to woodland.

Details: $1100 pays the capital cost of sequestering 5.7 tons annually in a newly planted woodlot. Current incentives from Green Mountain Power to buy an all-electric car are $1500 (plus another $1000 for low income people).  The feds will pay up to $7500; Vermont has an incentive only for low-income purchasers. We, the ratepayers and taxpayers, shell out $9000 to non-low-income GMP customers to convince them to replace their fossil-fuel cars with electrics (which they might have done anyway). Even if we assume that all the electricity used by these cars is generated without consuming fossil fuel (certainly not true!), completely removing the average car from the road avoids emitting only 4.6 tons of CO2 year. It costs about $1950/ton to remove a ton of annual emissions with electric cars incentives; it costs $194 to remove a ton by planting trees on underused dairy land.

It costs 10.5 times as much per ton to reduce CO2 by installing “cold climate” air source heat pumps as it does to convert to woodland.

Details: This one is really complex but a recent study commissioned by the Vermont Public Service Department shows that the average residential heat pump installed in Vermont cost $4500 and saved the use of 217 gallons of fuel. Turns out that air-source heat pumps don’t do much when it’s really cold so people still need to use their oil furnaces for much of their load.

Vermont’s current plans for atmospheric CO2 reduction rely almost entirely on switching energy sources and discouraging the use of some forms of energy while incenting the use of others.(see  2016 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan). We are not on track to meet the goals of this plan and so many are proposing increased energy taxes and draconian governmental controls.  We can actually achieve greater reduction by converting some of our million acres of cropland to timber at much, much lower cost and without making transportation and home heating more expensive for Vermonters.

If you think, as many do, that increasing atmospheric CO2 is an existential problem, then you should want Vermont’s reduction program to be as cheap and effective as it can be. If you think that the dangers of climate change or human contribution to climate change is negligible, you should want us to only do things for carbon reduction which are both cheap and have benefits beyond their effect on climate.  Because we have underused farmland, we have an opportunity other states don’t. Our greener new deal should be more trees, not more taxes.

BTW, I think afforestation (planting trees in places where they aren’t) can probably be done mostly if not completely with private funds (blog coming). The cost of electric car incentives is all born by taxpayers and utility ratepayers; the cost of heat pumps is split between incentives at the cost of other ratepayers and building owners.

See also:

Plants to the Rescue

The Ideal Green Solution

Undeserved (and Useless) Rebates I Got (about electric cars)

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

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