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Kerry to the... never mind

10 Feb 2021 | News Roundup

Last week we did our open-minded best to praise John Kerry and now we have to criticize him again. The problem is that in 2019 he flew in a private jet to Iceland to accept a climate award and his explanation when challenged has become a major flash point because it boils down to insisting that the rules are different for big shots like me. “It’s the only choice for somebody like me who is travelling the world to win this battle…. I believe the time it takes me to get somewhere, I can’t sail across the ocean, I have to fly to meet with people and get things done…. if I offset and contribute my life to do this, I’m not going to be put on the defensive.” Well, he will if we have anything to say about it. Although the real problem isn’t the conceited belief that him not having to wait at an airport is critical to saving the planet, or that he should fly while we walk. It’s that the math of carbon offsets is highly suspicious.

OK, the conceit is an issue too. Kerry’s “qu’ils mangent des panneaux solaires” is not imaginary or innocent. The idea of offsets is that he gets to use more carbon because he paid someone else not to. It’s the only way there can be “offsets”. But then if he gets to use jet fuel because he’s important, rich or both, he must be buying them from someone who doesn’t because they’re not. Someone who is not going places and getting things done.

Of course some of us get things done by phone or videoconference. But he is above such things. Literally.

The tone of the full quotation is vintage Kerry and not in a good way. Flying, he condescended to intone, is “the only choice for somebody like me who is travelling the world to win this battle. I negotiated the Paris Accords for the United States, I’ve been involved in this fight for years… and I believe the time it takes me to get somewhere, I can’t sail across the ocean, I have to fly to meet with people and get things done. But what I’m doing, almost full-time, is working to win the battle of climate change…”

What a hero for our times. A legend in his own mind. But what if the offsets are not just patrician but bogus? After all, when there’s a lot of money and political credibility on the table, you have to check the accounting at least twice.

For instance, as Ron Barmby argues in Schachter Energy Report (paywalled there but now published here), Canada’s Clean Fuel Standard looks like a tax grab or an engine-destroying chemical blunder. And it is. But the real issue is that it’s driven by cracked calculations about “carbon dioxide offsets”.

Specifically, the government assumes that CO2 from ethanol doesn’t exist for emissions purposes because it’s offset by the photosynthesis that grew the corn it was made from. And this assumption is wrong. It takes a lot of energy to turn corn into ethanol, and that energy involves CO2 emissions. And as Barmby argues, if the corn for the ethanol had not been grown, something else would have been, whether crop or wild plant, so the net photosynthetic effect is nil. Many sleuths have looked for evidence that ethanol releases less CO2 over its life cycle than gasoline, and haven’t found any.

As Barmby adds, “Ethanol releases only about two thirds of the energy on combustion that gasoline does, so the more ethanol that is blended into gasoline, the more volume of the blend is required to drive the same distance. Reports available from the US Energy Information Administration show that the same amount of CO2 is physically released from 10% ethanol blended gasoline as regular gasoline for the same distance driven. But now there is another CO2 stream to track: in the process of converting corn to ethanol, more CO2 is produced.” (That diverting corn to biofuels drives up food prices and hurts the world’s poor isn’t a climate change issue. But it’s still an issue, or ought to be.)

It can get worse and it does. International carbon credits rest on a foundation that makes one long for mere shaky assumptions. As for instance when French energy giant Total declares that it is delivering “carbon neutral” LNG, another term for very cold methane whose chemical formula CH4 has a big old C right there at the start. The trick is that Total is getting offsets from investing in a Chinese wind farm that, Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis point out on The Conversation, has existed in the land of coal since 2011 and has issued over 2 million tonnes of “carbon credits” in the past decade. The shell is moving so fast the pea is hard to follow as the barker insists that we “Step right up… Everybody wins”… except accountants, scientists and any honest person Diogenes or his successors might roust out in this mess. So where exactly is Kerry getting his offsets, and who checked the list twice to see if he’s naughty or nice?

As Barmby says of our own bogus math, “The real paradox is that this all helps Canada meet its Paris Agreement goals simply because of the bureaucratic assumption that more photosynthesis has taken place than otherwise would have. That logic leads to the outrageous conclusion that we should go back to cutting down trees for steam driven power plants and home heating, because it creates new photosynthesis.”

So when John Kerry swaggers off his jet airplane, remember: The offsets are fake. Only the arrogance is real.

2 comments on “Kerry to the... never mind”

  1. Aside from arguments about CO2 releases and photosynthesis creation ,ethanol blended gasoline requires a whole lot of H20(water!) to produce..
    Now this use of a very precious resource in an effort to save energy seems like a nongreen solution to climate change!? Right?

  2. Hello John,
    I’ve been following the range challenges of the EV’s. From a Quora question re range vs hot temps as in Los Angeles I received an answer of “range = 1/2 w A.C.

    Kerry bragged of recently driving from Boston to DC in an EV. That’s roughly 400 miles. Wondering what EV, and what happens to it’s range when heat is required. Any known details on the Kerry car?

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