Most people see needles, cones and flaky bark.
When Ted Dodge looks at a ponderosa pine, he sees a greenhouse gas vacuum and possible climate change buffer.
About half the total mass of a tree consists of carbon dioxide stored in the form of carbon, Dodge told a group of foresters and land managers in Coeur d’Alene earlier this week. An acre of these trees sucks at least a ton of the gas out of the atmosphere each year.
That’s worth money these days, especially as energy companies and other businesses are under increasing pressure to offset the carbon dioxide they emit, said Dodge, director of the National Carbon Offset Coalition, which is based in Butte, Mont.
Although the money for sucking carbon dioxide out of the air isn’t much – currently about $4 an acre – it’s enough to convince some landowners in the Inland Northwest, including the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, to get into the burgeoning business of carbon forestry. The tribe has recently planted about 5,000 acres of new forest along the Clearwater River and is in the process of selling carbon credits from the land. The state of Idaho is also exploring the idea as a way to wring more value out of its timber.
Funded by a U.S. Department of Energy grant, Dodge crisscrossed Idaho this week, explaining the concept, which seems a bit futuristic to a state still heavily dependent on turning trees into lumber. Dodge is hoping to find an extra 12,500 metric tons of forest-based and crop field-based carbon to sell to traders on the Chicago Climate Exchange.
“We believe this is going to be the largest commodity market in the world,” Dodge said during his PowerPoint presentation in Coeur d’Alene on Tuesday, adding, “This is going. The train has left the station.”
At current carbon prices, trees are still worth far more dead than alive, but landowners with no intention of cutting their trees might find an extra source of income through carbon credits, Dodge said. “It’s money they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”
Not surprisingly, there’s a fair bit of fine print.
Primarily, the trees must be planted on barren land or places where natural disasters, including wildfire, have killed off the forest. The landowner also must agree to keep the land forested for a set number of years. Farmers may also tap into the project by agreeing to no-till or low-till practices – just like forests, grassland also has the ability to lock up carbon, Dodge said.
Landowners are paid a set price for each ton of carbon stored by these newly planted trees or undisturbed fields. The going rate this week on the Chicago Climate Exchange was $3.80 per ton. Businesses and organizations that produce carbon dioxide buy credits on the exchange to help offset their emissions.
The system is voluntary in the United States, but dozens of organizations are now participating, including steel producers, energy companies and even the state of New Mexico. In Europe, where carbon dioxide emissions are capped by law, the price of carbon has topped $20 a ton.
Earlier this week, several large companies in the U.S., including General Electric and Alcoa, partnered with environmental groups to launch a coalition calling for mandatory federal emissions controls. Several states, including California, are beginning to regulate emissions on their own – a measure backed by scientific research that points to unchecked carbon dioxide emissions as a leading factor in climate change. A national standard would be easier to follow than dozens of separate state rules, said Neil Sampson, a Virginia-based forestry consultant to the National Carbon Offset Coalition.
When a national system is developed, the price of carbon credits is expected to rise, Sampson said. Forestry will likely play a marginal role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but Sampson believes it could be a way for landowners to make enough money to pay their tax bill while also helping stabilize the climate.
“We can’t solve the whole problem but we can nip away at the edges,” he said.
The Nez Perce Tribe has one of the biggest carbon forest projects in the region. The trees were planted on land once forested but long ago converted to agricultural lands on the advice of the federal government. The land wasn’t the best for crops and the tribe prefers to see it reforested, said John DeGroot, forestry director for the Nez Perce. The idea of selling carbon credits from these newly planted forests is appealing, he said, because it offers the chance to make money to manage the land and pay for other reforestation.
But at current prices, DeGroot said the tribe is lukewarm about signing any final agreements on the sale of carbon credits. Although a ton of carbon is worth twice as much now as it was last year, many foresters say the price would need to reach about $12 a ton before it becomes worthwhile to grow carbon forests. “We’re ready to sell if and when the carbon markets come into play,” DeGroot said.
The Idaho Department of Lands, which manages thousands of acres of forest in the state, is also looking into the idea. Several agency employees attended Dodge’s presentation earlier this week in Coeur d’Alene.