Levin College of Law

Balancing the Bonfire


Thomas T. Ankersen, Director, University of Florida Conservation Clinic

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol mandate reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs, and SF6) that contribute to global warming. The most significant of the these gases in terms of its overall contribution to global warming is CO2 – carbon dioxide which contributes about 50% of anthropogenic sources of global warming. The average citizen of the United States of America emits in the neighborhood of 20 tons per year as he or she go about their daily lives. This is twenty times the average person from India.

Greenhouse gases can be reduced by not introducing them into the atmosphere, and they can be offset or mitigated by undertaking activities that trap greenhouse gases, such as reforestation and afforestation. Increasingly, individuals and institutions are developing policies that offset carbon expended on an individual or institutional basis.

For example, suppose a group of fifty or so good friends from Florida in the United States decide to celebrate their hard work in support of the planet by hosting a relatively large bonfire in North Central Florida. If these friends were to calculate all the carbon that they expend in order to undertake this celebration they would come up with a figure that could be offset by reforestation or afforestation (e.g. planting trees). Probably the largest contribution to this figure would be the fossil fuel emitted to reach the site of the bonfire, as for example an environmental attorney driving an SUV from South Florida. People also introduce carbon dioxide directly to the atmosphere at different rates and amounts. For example, a harmonica player who is “built for comfort” and who “wailed” all night long would introduce more carbon than many members of his audience, except perhaps those who are wildly gyrating to the music. If all of the individual introductions of carbon associated with the event were to be added together and offset, the celebration would be considered “climate neutral.”

The bonfire itself would be also be a source of greenhouse gas. Fire directly introduces carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as it depletes carbon stored in wood. Different kinds of wood introduce different amounts of carbon dioxide at different rates. All of this can be calculated with a relatively high degree of accuracy. Since loblolly pine is a common species of Florida tree we will assume our hypothetical bonfire composed of loblolly pine and about six cubic feet in precombustion size. (6′ x 6′ x 6′). In addition, we can theorize that our hypothetical group of friends will not be sufficiently patient to use a match and locally available tinder; instead we will assume they will ignite the fire instantaneously with 10 gallons of regular grade gasoline. It is also conceivable that the ignition process will result from an elaborate ritual that itself expends significant greenhouse gases (but we will discount that).

The Clinic asked Mark Van Soestbergen who operates the International Carbon Bank and Exchange to calculate the carbon emitted from our hypothetical fire and ignition process and determine the number of trees that would have to be planted in order to offset the carbon expended by our group for their bonfire. To do this Mark made several accepted assumptions concerning survival rates (60-85%) and guarantees that the trees would be planted on property that is protected before they reach a size assumed for balancing the carbon (26′). Based on these assumptions, which are the same assumptions used to trade carbon on emerging carbon markets such as the one Mark operates, Mark concluded that the group of environmentalists should plant at least 10 loblolly pines in a secure location to offset the bonfire’s contribution to global warming. The detailed calculations are provided in the following spreadsheet.

You can learn more about the International Carbon Bank and Exchange by visiting Mark’s website at http://www.icbe.com/ or by visiting his booth at the 8th annual Public Interest Environmental Conference in Gainesville, Florida hosted by students of the University of Florida College of Law.


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Published: June 5th, 2012

Category: Academics

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