TreeFolks and the Carbon Economy: Trading for a Better Future

 In Education, News

It’s now February 2021, which means TreeFolks’ Reforestation Team is in full swing with crews of contractors planting trees across Eastern Travis County. These plantings will be registered with our partners in Seattle, City Forest Credits, to document the creation of Carbon+ Credits, a valuable metric for tracking progress towards a  sustainability-minded future and through which the long-term protection of the trees is encouraged. Over the next 25 years, each reforested acre will absorb nearly 2 metric tons of CO2 and sequester that carbon in the trees where it can no longer contribute to global warming. On top of that, City Forest Credits’ Carbon+ Credits also take into account the ecosystem services provided by trees, such as pollution reductions and energy cost abatement, which makes it much more attractive in the carbon market.

Benefits of tree diagram courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.

There has been a fair amount of press on the carbon market recently. For those unfamiliar with the carbon market, here’s a brief explanation. Essentially, the market is an imaginary space in which carbon credit producers sell their credits to carbon emitters. This allows carbon emitters to “offset” the carbon they are producing by demonstrating that they have also taken actions to remove that carbon from the atmosphere. Each metric ton of carbon that TreeFolks’ planting projects are able to pull from the atmosphere becomes a single carbon credit that we are then eligible to sell. Since we are able to generate Carbon+ Credits that account for carbon sequestration plus all the co-benefits, we are also able to realize a higher return than standard carbon credits. 

Unfortunately, some recent articles dealing with the carbon market have not been very positive. A few critics have complained that the carbon economy is imaginary, while others throw around the term “greenwashing”, and more still take umbrage at certain sequestration protocols. Some of the published attacks on carbon trading have gotten so extreme that we had to take a step back here at TreeFolks to make sure our Carbon+ Credit generation is credible and verifiable. Based on our review of the protocols we follow and the science behind them, our program is solid.

To get the most ridiculous criticism out of the way first, all economies are made up and the carbon economy is no different. Money and economics are human constructs. The concept of want and need and what people are willing to pay money for is well established, so suffice to say people and corporations are objectively concerned about global warming so much so that they want and need to offset their carbon footprints. To do this they are willing to pay for carbon credits that trusted organizations have certified as representing a reduction in atmospheric carbon. The carbon economy is just as real as any and is certainly something to pay attention to.

Accusations of greenwashing are much more serious and deserving of attention.  Greenwashing is the process through which non-environmentally minded corporations jump on environmental bandwagons in a way that’s less about the effectiveness of the measure and more about the public image of the corporation4. There are those polluting companies that see carbon credits as a way to maintain business as usual and are happy to shell out a few bucks to save face. Here at TreeFolks, we choose our partners carefully. The City of Austin continues to be one of our main partners on this project, which purchases Carbon+ Credits along with taking steps to reduce their carbon outputs as parts of a complete strategy towards carbon neutrality. TreeFolks has transferred credits to large and small groups in Austin that seek to complement their carbon reduction strategies with offsets. This includes local architecture landscaping firm dwg., the first private purchase of TreeFolks’ credits, and the City’s Office of Sustainability. We anticipate an increasing interest among other municipalities and businesses as they address climate change head-on.   

TreeFolks’ Carbon+ Credit recipients are dedicated to environmental protections, a sustainable future, and actually living up to their social responsibility goals.  They have reduced their output as much as they are currently able and are now attempting to offset their additional emissions. This is the entire point of the carbon trading market and is a great example of it working the way it was intended. The vast majority of emissions that cannot currently be addressed come from vehicular emissions5.  Electric cars are great, but they are a long way from being commonplace!

As for the complaints against the sequestration protocols themselves, that criticism does not affect TreeFolks, thanks to our continued use of the City Forest Credits Planting Protocol. Generally, these complaints have been directed at preservation protocols6, stemming from the fact that the land is often already under at least one level of legal protection, making the protocol redundant, and they therefore do not represent real carbon reductions. TreeFolks will likely incorporate the City Forest Credit Preservation Protocol into our work, and so here is a deeper explanation of them:  

The only protocol currently used by TreeFolks is the City Forest Credit Planting Protocol8. This is a carbon sequestration tree-planting system that requires the land to be devoid of trees before planting, followed by a detailed registration of how many trees get planted per plot, observation of the plots over time to ensure survival, and some pretty incredible science and math that describes the growth of trees in these densities. Since TreeFolks is planting and observing these plots, these carbon reductions are real reductions. We are performing an action that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequesters it safely in trees. 

Sapling trees

The same cannot always be said for land preserved through preservation protocols.  The land is preserved through these methods in order to prevent what’s called a “carbon reversal” or carbon dioxide returning to the atmosphere. If a preservation protocol is applied to land that has already been preserved through other means, the carbon in those trees was never at risk of reversal and, therefore, no additional carbon has been kept out of the atmosphere. Those credits are not authentic reductions in atmospheric carbon in the same sense that the credits that TreeFolks produces through planting are authenticated.

That does not mean that preservation protocols are completely without merit, though!  TreeFolks has actually identified preservation protocols as being an important way forward for the future of forests in Central Texas. If you haven’t noticed, Austin is growing by leaps and bounds. Austin home prices have boomed lately, and with so few houses on the market, developers are resorting to converting old agricultural land into urban areas8. Fields are easy to develop, but many have been fallow for years and have significant canopy coverage. These forests are storing impressive amounts of carbon that would be returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide if they were lost to bulldozers due to a lack of protection.

That’s where TreeFolks comes in! The City Forest Credits Preservation Protocol involves an in-depth assessment of the trees present on a site9. This data is fed through more of those impressive parametric growth “science+math” equations that will accurately (and conservatively) estimate the stored carbon in the forest. Once protected, that carbon amount becomes eligible for sale as credits but the forest does not accrue more credits in its preserved time. The only credits TreeFolks gets to sell are those that represent the carbon that is present in the forest at the moment of preservation. Most, if not all, of that carbon would be released into the atmosphere through decay and rot after clear-cutting, which is why preservation protocols only work on land that is at risk.

A significant amount of forested land in Central Texas is currently at risk. In fact, five Central Texas cities rank within the fastest growing communities in the United States: Hutto, Pflugerville, Buda, Kyle, and San Marcos10. All of these were once independent towns that have now become satellite communities of Austin. Our land is filling up with houses, and most of that land is not protected. Much of that land is forested and with the advent of reliable preservation protocols, it can be eligible for preservation. Now that TreeFolks has officially changed the name of our Travis County Floodplain Reforestation Program to the Central Texas Floodplain Reforestation Program, TreeFolks can be part of the regional solution to climate change as we fight the loss of tree canopy throughout all of Central Texas.

 

Written by: Collin McMichael, Education Coordinator

Edited by: Andrew Smiley, Executive Director

 

Resources:

  1. Rosenbloom, Daniel, et al. “Opinion: Why carbon pricing is not sufficient to mitigate climate change—and how ‘sustainability transition policy’ can help.” Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesApr 2020, 117 (16) 8664-8668
  2. McLaren DP, Tyfield DP, Willis R, Szerszynski B and Markusson NO (2019) Beyond “Net-Zero”: A Case for Separate Targets for Emissions Reduction and Negative Emissions. Front. Clim.1:4.
  3. Irfan, Umair. “Can You Really Negate Your Carbon Emissions? Carbon Offsets, Explained.” Vox, 27 Feb. 2020, www.vox.com/2020/2/27/20994118/carbon-offset-climate-change-net-zero-neutral-emissions. 
  4. Constable, Simon. “What Is Greenwashing? Here Is What Investors Need to Know.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 9 Nov. 2020, www.wsj.com/articles/what-is-greenwashing-here-is-what-investors-need-to-know-11604881371. 
  5. Houston, Katie, et al. City of Austin, 2020, pp. 1–13, City Efforts to Reduce Carbon Emissions
  6. Elgin, Ben. “These Trees Are Not What They Seem.” Bloomberg.com, BloombergGreen, 9 Dec. 2020, 2:15pm, www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-nature-conservancy-carbon-offsets-trees/. 
  7. Baumer, Zach, et al. ver. 8, City Forest Credits, 2020, pp. 1–31, City Forest Credits Tree Planting Protocol
  8. Friel, Katie. “Austin Home Prices Climb Sky-High as Real Estate Experts Issue Warning to City Leaders.” Kvue.com, CultureMap, 16 Dec. 2020, www.kvue.com/article/money/economy/boomtown-2040/austin-home-prices-climb-sky-high-as-real-estate-experts-issue-warning-to-city-leaders/269-fb7047c2-294f-41d9-8415-f7849c33d63e. 
  9. Baumer, Zach, et al. ver. 9.40, City Forest Credits, 2020, pp. 1–62, City Forest Credits Tree Preservation Protocol – 40 years.

10. Community Impact Staff. “These 5 Central Texas Cities Are among the Fastest-Growing in the U.S.” Community Impact Newspaper, Community Impact Newspaper, 25 May 2020, communityimpact.com/austin/new-braunfels/data-reference/2020/05/25/these-5-central-texas-cities-are-among-the-fastest-growing-in-the-us/.