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This week in Copenhagen, global leaders are working on a cooperative strategy to reduce global warming. Congress is also considering a proposal to set limits on carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. As part of a collaboration with northeast stations, Rachel Ward of WXXI in Rochester reports on the growing interest in offering carbon credits to polluters in exchange for preserving forest land.
Under cap and trade agreements, companies buy and sell permits for every ton of carbon they emit. The idea is to give them a financial incentive to pollute less. But under the cap and trade proposal before Congress, they may have another option. David Roberts with the environmental website Grist says basically, polluters could pay for other activities that reduce carbon dioxide or CO2.
“Instead of me conducting my own expensive CO2 reductions, I'll just pay someone else to do it because they can do it cheaper than I can. So the basic economic idea is for the market to find the cheapest CO2 reductions it can, so you can make the cheapest, fastest, reductions.”
Those reductions are called offsets or credits, and one potential credit can be achieved by preserving forest land. A forest is a carbon scrubbing machine. Trees and brush suck in carbon dioxide. They capture it in their leaves and branches through photosynthesis.
It's a rainy fall day at Corbett's Glen Nature Park, a small forest outside Rochester, New York. University of Rochester political science professor Lawrence Rothenberg is with me to hunt for carbon credits.
“The main things around here are really going to be the trees and the like that will count as carbon credits that would really be effective in doing that.”
“The fact that this space is a park and not developed, would that count as a carbon credit?”
“Absolutely, so you could as a part of developing carbon credits, you could agree to produce more essentially undisturbed park land.”
Rothenberg says forestry credits aren’t perfect. They’re not really “additional”. The forest already exists, so no new carbon is being sucked out of the atmosphere. But he says forests could be managed to be better at reducing carbon.
“What you can try to do is induce people either to plant forest, reforest, change their forestry practices in ways that basically sucks up more carbon.”
But some say if a forest was slated to be cut down for development, but it was preserved instead, then it should be eligible for a carbon credit.
That’s what Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties wants.
“What we're hoping to do is have in place a program in New York in advance of this federal legislation such that we'll have a program that can get out on market relatively quickly.”
The Association is creating a registry of county-owned forests, to see what could qualify as a credit. Acquario says selling forestry credits could help New York counties make a little extra money to maintain forest lands, as a reward for preserving them. And he thinks the idea could spread to other states with lots of trees, like Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont.
But David Roberts with Grist says preserving trees may not be as effective as just cutting emissions.
“Specifically with regard to forestry it’s one of the dodgiest areas of the offset market, I think. But the problem is it’s also potentially one of the largest offset markets. So there’s huge business forces and just political pressure trying to get this forestry stuff into the offset market because a lot of people stand to benefit from it.”
But Roberts says it’s not just people who own forests who might try to cash in on carbon credits.
“If you create this huge new demand, all of the sudden you're going to have a rush of people saying 'look, I planted a garden in my back yard, that sequestered some carbon, so give me money'.”
Roberts says ultimately, it’s not the forest owner’s job to make sure carbon credits really are reducing pollution. Instead it’s the government’s job to make the rules. So that could be the Senate’s task, as it takes up climate change legislation, this spring.
Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Initiative