Paying for tree planting with oil money is fundamentally unsustainable
Does the new and unprecedented climate crisis demand a new and innovative solution? Are the two billion trees to be planted by 2030 as proposed by the elected liberal government during the last federal election an innovative solution? Furthermore, does it matter that the plan is funded through revenues generated by the recently approved Trans-Mountain pipeline project?
Some educated observers can see a brilliant new win-win idea that turns an environment problem – fossil fuel use – into a key environmental solution. Others see it as a communication exercise that pushes the idea that a tiny good act balances out, or more than makes up for, a bigger bad one.
Politicians and some other stakeholders learned long ago to distract us from seeing the potential true environmental harm of a project by redirecting our attention to some happier image. In this case, the distraction is those future fields of pretty little green trees. There is something inherently dubious, to say the least, about using unsustainable resource extraction as a means of building a sustainable tree planting program.
Extracting crude oil is unsustainable and transporting it risks massive spills. Such a risk often comes with disturbing fears by local communities and environmental NGOs. The Dakota Keystone pipeline spill in late October 2019 should serve as a cautionary tale. Approximately 1.4 million liters of toxic crude oil spilt into North Dakota pristine land, negatively impacting surrounding ecosystems and wildlife.
The problem of weighing the good of tree planting against the bad of oil pipelines money comes from the fact that no common standard is applied to enable the comparison. Lee Easton, a Professor with expertise in communication and rhetoric at Mount Royal University explains the flaw in the government plan statement: “It’s actually a fallacy of inconsistency…two things that are unequal are falsely equated to each other. In this case, the benefit of planting trees is equated to the benefits created by building the pipeline.”
According to Easton comparing the gases trees absorb with those from the oil produced and distributed through the pipeline would provide a fair and better comparison: “We know the increased GHG (greenhouse gases) emissions from the production of bitumen in Alberta and Saskatchewan (not to mention the GHGs on the consumption side) can be measured.” That needs to be contrasted with the capacity to sink these emissions by the newly planted trees, adds Easton.
The new federal government’s plan of promoting oil usage to solve the problems created by oil usage could also be evaluated using other rhetorical tests. We can ask, for example, whether it passes the argument by analogy test or does it instead fall prey to a reduction to absurdity criticism?
It is clear that we need a new solution right now. Falling back on oil money to fund our new sustainable initiatives is not the answer. Much of the climate change/environment debate gets bogged down with this kind of faulty rhetoric. Let’s all use renewable grocery bags at the store, but commute to those stores in our gas-guzzling SUV’s.
Greta Thunberg spoke well to this point by calling infinite economic growth out for what it is: a fairytale. In the case of Trudeau’s plan, we need to ask ourselves whether we would believe the proposition that doubling down on more of a bad thing will lead to good outcomes if it were applied to other situations?
For example, would anyone ever think it is a good idea for the government to invest in tobacco farms and encourage cigarette use in order to raise tax revenues from cigarette sales, which could then be used to treat lung cancer patients? Or would government investments in tobacco farms be scoffed at as an absurd idea? It’s up for us to decide.