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Is It a Mitzvah to Carbon Offset?

Monday night begins Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. According to Jewish tradition, God judges trees’ productivity for the coming year. Our trees are in trouble and so is our world. That should worry us every day of the year and particularly on Tu B’Shevat.
This worry is mobilizing many to “go green.” Most of these initiatives are volitional: We do them out of the goodness of our heart, not because we must.

Out Talmudic sages make an interesting point about volition. They say volition is good but not as good as doing something one is obligated to do. Our sages understood human nature: that we generally prefer to in control of our own lives, but that the good of the world often depends on us giving up some of our volition to obey rules for the common good. Doing so is praiseworthy precisely because it is hard for us to do.
If so, is it then enough to just recommend environmentally responsible behavior or must it be required? Since, as Jews, we are required to tend the Earth, should carbon offsetting be a religious obligation, a mitzvah (not in the “good deed,” but in the full obligatory sense of the word)?
There is some debate about carbon offsetting: that it assuages guilt without stimulating real change. We do need to reuse, reduce, and recycle. In my home we lower the thermostat, turn off lights, try as much as possible to buy local produce and bulk staples (to reduce shipping and packaging), wrap lunches in reusable containers, recycle, bundle our errands, and take other energy saving steps to lower our carbon footprint. (See the COEJL website for more ideas.) For those who can walk to services on Shabbat, doing so is a double mitzvah, remembering the Sabbath and helping to protect the Earth.
But there are times when we cannot walk to where we need to go. There are places I need, or want, to go, whether it’s going on vacation, visiting family and friends, attending conferences. It is not only that I want to assuage my guilt in such travels, I also want to channel the guilt I feel into something that actually helps fix the problems my participating in modern society creates.
This is a very Jewish view, the basis for our concept of teshuvah, tzedakah and tikkun olam: that we can make change (teshuvah) in our lives and in this world and where we cannot exactly rectify the impact of our deeds, we can compensate for them through charity and just deeds (tzedakah) and in doing so we help repair the world (tikkun olam).
In this context, carbon offsetting should be a mitzvah, not just a “good deed.”
When we do those things that we feel we must–or just really, really, really want to do–then the least we can do is carbon offset the impact of those actions. Planting trees is one way to do that. Indeed, planting trees in Israel for Tu B’Shevat–and year round–is a venerated tradition. But a better way to carbon offset is to support organizations like Terrapass, which retire carbon credits from the marketplace (truly reducing CO2 production) and invest in alternative energies.
The changes we make in our personal lives become multiplied geometrically when we introduce them into our corporate lives, our congregations, our businesses, and our governments. Scientists do believe we have a chance to rescue our planet before it is too late, but only if we act now. Tu B’Shevat is a great day to start.

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Matt Feldman

posted January 23, 2008 at 9:17 am

As a lover of Tu B’Shevat and trees please don’t buy trees as a carbon offset project. Trees help Isreal reclaim the desert, as an offset project it is awful.
Planting trees is the most common way to offset carbon production and is the most controversial. The theory is that one tree over the life time of that tree destroy one ton of carbon dioxide.
Here are just a few problems with that theory. What is the life time of a tree? Will it take 75 years to remove a ton of carbon? Will it take 100 years to remove a ton of carbon?
A 2005 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory(LLNL) study using climate models examined the effectiveness of planting trees in different areas as a way to offset carbon production. What they found was nothing less shocking, snow is white and reflects heat. Trees are not white and absorb more heat then snow, hence heating the earth up. As the earth gets hotter more snow melts, more trees grow making the earth even hotter. You can see were this is going. LLNL ran simulation models comparing trees versus shrubs/grassland. Trees were shown to make the earth 1.6 C warmer when planted and grasslands were shown to make the earth cooler by 0.38C. So why would anyone plant trees as a carbon offset project?
There are some exceptions to this idea. The first exception is planting trees in the Amazon rain forest. The idea is that the rainforest works in a synergy and adding more trees to this synergy is beneficial. The other exception is planting trees in an urban area. Trees are cooler then pavement, and will provide a cooling effect to the pavement.
The Austrilia Institute also took a look at tree planting as an offset project. They found some rather interesting results. The first issue is that forestry projects can not perminanetly store carbon. At some point the forest will be cut down or burned, when that happens the stored carbon is released into the environment. The forest soil can hold a vast sums of carbon from decaying leaves, trees, and branches. When the forest is cut down or burned the soil can release that carbon into the environment.
Tree planting can lead to carbon leakage. When trees are planted on land, the land use changes. If the land was being used for farms, houses, or recreational activities people may just clear new land and continue those activities. Where this happens, the apparent emission reductions from a forestry projects could ‘leak’ out of another forest area.
Climate change will have an impact of forestry offsets. With the current environmental change caused by global warming rain fall levels are not the same. Many tree planting offset projects are happening in areas that might not have enough rain to support a forest.

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Just a guy

posted January 24, 2008 at 8:36 am

“Monday night begins Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. According to Jewish tradition, God judges trees’ productivity for the coming year. Our trees are in trouble and so is our world. That should worry us every day of the year and particularly on Tu B’Shevat.”
And now we know why the fig tree got its comeupance in the Gospel of Mark (chapter 11).
Something troubling, this “green” ideology, it smacks of a religious movement “too.” The threat of doom, personal guilt and accountability, repentance, recompense, forgiveness, doing good works, etc., etc., etc..

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posted January 24, 2008 at 10:22 am

1/ If someone is about to have a baby can they kill somebody the day before?
2/ A substantial number of these ‘offset’ programs are frauds.
3/ There may not be any greenhouse problem anyways.

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posted January 25, 2008 at 4:54 pm

Is it a requirement as Conservative to not believe in global warming? Who signs your marching orders…Rush?

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posted January 26, 2008 at 6:28 pm

I never said that there’s no global warming. I said I don’t know. and even if there is global warming, I say mmmmm, nice warm weather-who needs winter-I don’t
And who gives you your marching orders, mansion-owner Al Gore?

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posted February 3, 2008 at 11:59 am

I pity you for feeling guilt over your CO2 footprint.
Recent history tells us that Greenland was once actually green and not an ice cap, and that the British Isles were warm enough to support vineyards. This within the past 10-15 centuries, not over 650,000 years ago as Al Gore claims. FYI ice layers are not like tree growth rings that can form once or twice per year, but multiple ones can form in a day. And those visually stimulating clips of melting sea ice shows what actually occurs every spring when the miles of sea ice that formed over the winter melt back.
Currently there are many gardeners who have to add CO2 to their greenhouses to assist plants to grow to their full potential. Until there is enough CO2 in the atmosphere to allow these plants to achieve this without human intervention, I will never feel guilty about my footprint. Go green, save a tree, and produce more CO2.
I am not confusing this with real pollution concerns, and as a libertarian, I also support alternative energy sources rather than being bound to a grid.
Common sense tells us that the simplest and most efficient way to reduce our CO2 footprint is to simply stop breathing. We could do this, not of our own volition, but as our obligation to help repair the world.
“Scientists do believe we have a chance to rescue our planet before it is too late, but only if we act now.”
Scientists also “believe” that if 6.1 of the estimated 6.6 billion humans on earth took this simple step in reducing their carbon footprint, we would help repair the world by achieving a sustainable population.

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