Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Better than a hybrid

The world burns oil and coal and fouls up the environment and thereafter hopes to make up for it by planting forests that recapture the emitted carbons. It won’t, but at least it is better than doing nothing, especially if it does it right.

Currently, some of the car makers are being criticized for not doing enough developing environmental friendly hybrid vehicles. But, before they commit large amounts to that effect they should perhaps look at other alternatives… such as an “as-good-as-it-gets forest mining carbon sink”.

The Web site of a car maker announces that their best-selling hybrid vehicle costs around 4.000 dollars more than the comparably equipped standard version. In compensation the hybrid will, by giving 14 miles more per gallon of gas and if driven 20.000 miles per year, save the owner over ten years about 3.000 gallons of gas, and thereby save the environment from having about 7.3 tons of carbon converted into CO2. The technology used in these hybrids is quite creative as it harnesses in a battery some of the energy obtained when braking and thereafter uses it as efficiently as possible.

If we assume no new-technology surprises, for instance battery problems down the line, this environmental conscientious investment proposal seems reasonable for the individual US motorist in the US at current $2.20 per gallon of gas, and indeed splendid one in Europe with their over $7 per gallon… although there it clearly has more to do with saving the taxes on gas, than with the cost of the gas saved. Nonetheless in terms of the environment, the results are not that impressive and the world could do much better in terms of the social and environmental impact.

For instance there is Tanzania, an extremely poor country, with a per capita income of about 300 dollars per year, with not enough prospects to get it out of its predicaments and where much of its land is slowly but surely turning into desert, at a pace of more than 300.000 ha per year. Although there are some major mining companies operating in Tanzania and that we hope are doing their extraction in the right way, their environment is also suffering at the hands of about one million unofficial freelance miners that roam the country trying desperately to make a living.

By putting together the reasons for the hybrids and the needs of Tanzania one could then think of setting up cooperatives for these miners and turn them into reforesters, and having the whole project financed by buyers of cars. Is it feasible and sustainable? Absolutely!

If our car buyer, instead of buying a hybrid, saved four thousand dollars by buying a standard car and then would pay just 2.000 dollars to a cooperative, this amount could, after reasonable promotional and administration costs, cover the initial reforestation of about 5 ha and the carbon thereby captured would be at least 200 tons, 27 times more than the hybrid-car savings. Yes we all know that a ton of carbon saved by not converting a stable sink like petrol that has been there for millions of years is much better than a ton saved in an unstable forest that can burn or rot, but never 27 times better.

As the reforested area captures its carbon throughout the years it could also be maintained with the income obtained from selling emission-savings certificates based on the Kyoto protocol. If forest captures 4 ton CO2 per year and ha, and the value of an emission saving certificate per ton were to be $10, then there would be a yearly income for the cooperative of 40 dollars per ha during 10 years.

We do not wish to demean the efforts of any car company that invests in the research of more energy efficient cars but that does not necessarily mean it needs to sell their hybrid cars before they’re as-good-as-they can get. At this moment of scarce resources and urgent environmental needs perhaps we would all be better of if the car industry offered their consumers, in lieu of hybrid cars, the possibility to drive away in standard cars that carry on their windows bright emblems, certifying each one of them as proud financiers of 5 ha of reforestation in Tanzania, all observable live through the Web site of The First Forest Mining Cooperative of Tanzania.

Published in OGEL Vol 3 Issue 2 June 2005