Carbon Offsets/Credits

Published on January 4th, 2010 | by Susan Kraemer


Century-Long Reforestation Deal in Works For California in Cap and Trade

Folksinger Joni Mitchell’s “paved paradise” of the 20th century could wind up being partially reforested in the 21st century, under California’s proposed landmark Cap and Trade legislation that takes effect in the next few years.

It’s because the state will include provisions for offsetting some greenhouse gas emissions by investing in conservation and reforestation over at least the next century.

Image by laughtersEx_Tree

Cap and Trade in California will supply funds for reforestation

This kind of legislation sets a limit on total greenhouse gases, and then acts as a prod to polluter industries to compete to lower pollution faster, by making it cheaper to reduce pollution than to continue doing business as usual.

Under California’s cap and trade proposal, the polluting companies affected:  (in the oil, gas, coal and cement industries) would be able to buy carbon offsets – which would supply funds for conservation reforestation programs, that soak up part of the carbon they emit. The idea is to cap the total allowable emissions, and then let companies that can reduce pollution trade with those less energy-efficient companies that can (or will) not reduce pollution.

The faster companies lower carbon emissions from fossil energy the more money they make by trading emissions permits with less efficient companies who must buy the right from the more efficient to use up part of a finite (and constantly shrinking) total state pollution “allowance”.

Like the EPAs current Cap and Trade program it administers now (that reduced SOx and NOx emissions that caused acid rain), and like the European cap and trade program that was developed in the wake of their signing the Kyoto Accord, Cap and Trade has been shown to reduce the targeted pollution very effectively, according to a study from the German Marshall Fund: Ten Insights from Europe on the EU Emissions Trading System(pdf)

The industries affected can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by investing in renewable energy or efficiency measures like combined heat & power, and waste-to-energy technology. The European papermill industry reduced emissions by nearly half under EU Cap and Trade.

Forestry offsets are to provide another way to reduce carbon emissions through avoided deforestation. Forests provide the value of sequestration of carbon and also counteract the regional ecological effects of climate change: in California that is drought,  mudslides and wildfires.

Forests act as fog catchers on the coast, bringing essential water to a parched region. In a sense, forests almost act like nature’s utility, providing services. So two years ago CARB set up the first governmental system for quantifying and verifying carbon offsets in local forests, so forests could be included in our Cap and Trade program.

As they did during the long years of inaction on vehicle efficiency improvements (with the California Waiver on vehicle efficiency), other states are potentially going to add on to the California cap and trade in the absence of Federal action. The rules are being designed to be broad enough to be easily transferred to apply to other states too.

Already, Pacific Gas & Electric, Northern California’s biggest utility allows customers to contribute $5 a month,  to buy carbon offsets from the Conservation Fund, which manages Mendocino County’s 23,780-acre Garcia River Forest. That is a consumer-driven voluntary offset program, similar to offset programs from Terrapass.

The new draft, which goes before CARB this month, will be mandatory: a statewide Cap and Trade program. Once it is mandatory timber companies that do not participate in the voluntary offset program will have to manage the 14 million acres of private timberland they harvest to absorb more carbon over a 100 year timescale. They can accomplish this by allowing far more natural old growth to remain rather than farming the whole forest.  The new rules are the culmination of 18 months of work by members of a task force that clarifies rules for companies to quantify and verify carbon.

The 100 year rule is new. The voluntary program required a permanent conservation easement to create guaranteed carbon storage in perpetuity. But only conservation groups bought in, greatly limiting the supply of forested lands available for carbon sequestration. The new rule would change that, opening up more land to conservation by more organizations and private owners.

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