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California and the West

Historic Deal Is Based on Trees' Value in Environment


In a landmark--though mostly symbolic--deal announced Thursday, a Northern California conservation group has sold the air-cleansing capacity of trees on 5,000 acres to a Texas energy company. The aim of the sale is to help deter global warming and to win some public relations points for clean energy and old-growth forests.

In the deal, Pacific Forest Trust, based in Santa Rosa, sold $6,000 worth of "carbon emissions reduction credits" to Green Mountain Energy Co., a Texas-based energy provider that sells power from environmentally friendly sources.

The credits are based on the work of trees at four sites in California and Oregon, including a 700-acre, partly old-growth redwood forest in San Mateo County. On each of the sites, private forest owners have donated rights to the trees' photosynthetic capacity to the trust, which in turn will sell them to Green Mountain.

When trees perform photosynthesis, they emit oxygen while absorbing carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping "greenhouse gas," to make their bark, roots, branches and leaves.

Environmentalists increasingly argue forests play a useful role in reducing the risk of climate change, which many scientists believe has been aggravated by emissions of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels.

The potential sale of photosynthesis may give trees a new lease on life by establishing a value for standing forests independent of their worth as cut timber.

Forest loss is thought to be the second largest source of world carbon-dioxide emissions, next to the burning of fossil fuels. Trees release stored carbon dioxide when they die. The idea of such purchases is to leave the forests standing.

Over the past several years, a few big utility companies from Europe, Japan and the United States have been buying "carbon rights" from forests, mostly in developing countries, where forest land is relatively cheap. They've done so in the hope that such purchases will count to their credit if laws are passed setting limits on their carbon dioxide emissions.

Similarly, Green Mountain is buying credits in expectation of future regulatory requirements, as well as for the publicity value.

As an energy provider, the company doesn't emit the great quantities of carbon dioxide that energy generators do. But it is trying to offset emissions attributable to its corporate travel, paper use and employee commuting.

Company spokeswoman Suzie Quinn said those emissions amount to about 5,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The purchase of carbon rights will offset about half of that for 1999-2000.

To be sure, these numbers are drops in the bucket since humans worldwide pump more than 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year. But Pacific Forest Trust's co-founder, Laurie Wayburn, maintained the deal is a significant step forward. "This is a pilot project," Wayburn said. "It shows it can be done. In the meantime, we've had very significant interest from some of the major power producers in the country."

These producers may be waiting for clearer signs of progress on legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Later this month, representatives of the majority of the world's countries, including the United States, will meet in The Hague to negotiate such rules.

Only Oregon and Massachusetts, according to Wayburn, have so far enacted regulations requiring companies that apply for new licenses to offset their carbon emissions. But California's Secretary of Resources, Mary Nichols, praised the deal in a statement by Pacific Forest Trust.

"This groundbreaking transaction, and the forest carbon market it helps create in California, could bring great benefits to the state's forest economy, and to the state's important forest ecosystems," she said.

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