January 2009
Featured Articles

Growing Money on Trees with Carbon Credits

Yes, Virginia, money does grow on trees, at least if you are a forestland owner who is considering planting trees or using existing plantings to earn carbon credits.

How does this work? First, a brief lesson in recent history: a growing body of research has revealed greenhouse gases — water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and ozone, to name a few — generated by both natural and manmade processes, have increased in recent decades.

These gases are indispensible in creating the greenhouse effect warming the earth and sustaining life on our planet. But a growing number of scientists fears excessive emissions of these greenhouse gases, partly due to industrial activities, are causing excessive warming of the atmosphere — warming already negatively affecting the earth’s environment.

What can be done about it? Scientists at the Center for Atmospheric Research believe one solution is carbon credit exchanges — proactive efforts by some sectors of the economy, including forestry, to offset higher-than-desired emissions of carbon dioxide by other sectors of the economy.

One of these proactive players may turn out to be forestland owners, who can use existing and future tree plantings to store carbon in the ground, said Beau Brodbeck, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System regional agent specializing in forestry, wildlife and natural resources.

In the case of carbon dioxide, for example, a tree can absorb an estimated 48 pounds, while an acre of trees can absorb as much as 2 tons a year, storing the carbon in leaves, branches and trunks.

In fact, a program promoting this sort of carbon storage already is in place. The program, based on the carbon credit concept, was created in response to scientific findings about global warming and formalized by an international agreement stemming from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which calls for a 5.2 percent reduction in greenhouse gases compared to emissions in 1990.

Industries located within countries that signed the pact are now required to reduce greenhouse emissions, which they essentially can do in one of two ways: either by reducing emissions through cleaner technologies or by offsetting their emissions through a carbon credit exchange program, Brodbeck said.

And this is where Alabama forestland owners may play a role. In fact, our state’s rich reserve of forestland may turn to be an especially lucrative source of carbon credits. Aforestation — planting trees in old agricultural fields — is one option. So are long-term forest preservations within conservation easements and long-term sustainable forest management.

Although the United States is not a signatory to the agreement, U.S. industries can still cooperate with forestland owners on a voluntary basis.

In fact, a mechanism already is in place — the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) — to provide carbon credits. Started in 2003, CCX is already actively trading and providing opportunities for forestland owners around the country, Brodbeck stated.

Instead of directly purchasing carbon credits, they work through what are known as aggregators, companies seeking carbon credits and combining them into packages sold on CCX.

Aggregators prepare the projects, measure the data — for example, how many tons of carbon your aforestation is creating — and then secure the contract and monitor the system to ensure compliance, Brodbeck explained.

Alabama already has had an 8-acre parcel of land registered and sold on CCX with many others possible within the next few months.

But what began as a voluntary program may soon become mandatory if a congressional bill, which already has garnered bipartisan support, passes next year.

Still, despite all the promises associated with these credits, taking part requires some commitment from the owners. Landowners are required to complete some paperwork before they can be formally enrolled, according to Dr. Rebecca Barlow, an Extension private forestland management specialist and Auburn University assistant professor of forestry and wildlife sciences.

First, they have to document they are the actual owners of the property. Also, if they choose the aforestation option, they must show when the trees were planted and also provide proof the land had no trees on it before December 31, 1989.

If cases where landowners choose the sustainable management option, their property must be certified through affiliations like the American Tree Farm System.

In all cases, timber is cruised by a third party to determine carbon levels on the site. Payment is based on projected net carbon dioxide sequestration.

Landowners are also required to sign 15-year contracts. Use limitations are also imposed on the land during the life of the contract.

In meantime, Brodbeck said landowners with questions about the CCX program should visit www.chicagoclimatex.com.

NOTE: This is part of a series associated with Thriving in Challenging Times, a statewide Extension initiative to help Alabamians cope with the recent economic downturn. Call or visit your county Extension office for more information.

Patrick Cook is a Regional Extension Agent.