Tree HuggerCarbon-dioxide consuming forests are helping control climate change—and that’s turning some polluters into tree huggers. Businesses that emit greenhouse gases want to be able to pay forest owners to save their trees in order to receive credit for cutting pollution. And while there’s no question that trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, there’s plenty of debate over how to value those reductions, as this recent story in the Wall Street Journal explains in plain, non-wonky English. 

Timber owners and polluters alike favor tree conservation as “offsets” for greenhouse gas pollution. Under a cap-and-trade program like the one being considered by the US Senate, carbon emitters can meet a pollution cap either by reducing their own emissions through cleaner technology, or by purchasing offsets in which others cut their emissions.

Explains the WSJ:

Trees are nature’s antidote to smokestacks and tailpipes. Factories and cars cough out carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas produced when fossil fuel is burned. Trees inhale it. They store the carbon in their roots, trunks and leaves, and they send the oxygen back into the air.

And the trees do indeed inhale. The National Alliance of Forest Owners, a US forest-owners group supporting offsets, claims that American forests “sequester almost 200 million metric tons of carbon each year, offsetting about 10 percent of annual US emissions from burning fossil fuels.”

That’s fine and dandy, but let’s get back to the question of how to value those trees.

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  • Offsets only make meaningful cuts in carbon emissions if they prevent pollution that would have otherwise occurred. That is, it doesn’t count as a reduction to pay for forest preservation if the woods were already safeguarded against logging. So you have to prove that logging was imminent until the offset came along. And there’s the problem of what happens if the woods burn down, or for how long logging is prohibited.

    But with lots of money and environmental good at stake, there are countless folks pitching ideas and trying to solve the forest offset conundrum. 

    Thursday, the Western Climate Initiative, a government coalition of US states and Canadian provinces combating climate change, released its first draft of “Offset Definition and Eligibility Criteria” for public comment. 

    The paper calls for offsets that are real, additional, permanent, and verifiable—all features that Sightline Institute also deemed necessary in our “Cap and Trade 101: A Climate Policy Primer” (for definitions of real, additional, permanent, and verifiable offsets—plus some added features we see as important, see page 15 of the document).

    The WCI document doesn’t, however, give specific recommendations for regulating forestry offsets, though concerns about them are sprinkled throughout. State-level efforts have tackled the matter, including Washington’s Forest Sector Workgroup on Climate Change Mitigation at its report on forest offsets and Oregon’s Forest Carbon Stakeholders Workgroup.

    While this is all being sorted out, entrepreneurs are ready to start turning trees into cash. Finite Carbon hung up its shingle earlier this month, promising that it’s:

    “the forest carbon development company that provides a single-source solution for creating and monetizing carbon credits … offer(ing) the most comprehensive forest carbon project development and commercialization service in the United States.”

    For great ongoing analysis of forestry offsets, check out the Climate Forests blog.

    Steeple photo courtesy of Flickr user Ben Amstutzunder the Creative Commons license.