ARCATA, CALIF. — Silvery light flickers through the redwood canopy of the Van Eck forest down to a fragrant carpet of needles and thimbleberry brush. A brook splashes along polished stones, through thickets of ferns.
How lush. How lovely. How lucrative.
This 2,200-acre spread in Humboldt County does well by doing good. For the last four years, Van Eck's foresters restricted logging, allowing trees to do what trees do: absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The conservation foundation that oversees the forest then calculated that carbon bonus and sold it for $2 million to individuals and companies trying to offset some 185,000 metric tons of their greenhouse gas emissions.
"Forests can be managed like a long-term carbon bank," said Laurie Wayburn, president of the Pacific Forest Trust, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that oversees Van Eck. Selling offsets, she said, is like "writing checks on the account."
In the struggle over how to address climate change nationally and globally, forests play a major role. "Cap-and-trade" programs set limits on greenhouse gases and allow industries to trade emissions permits among themselves. And they can include provisions for offsetting heat-trapping pollution by investing in woodlands.
Offsets are poised for explosive growth. In the next two years, California is expected to roll out a statewide carbon market that may be expanded to other Western states. Nationally, climate legislation approved by a key congressional committee last week would allow U.S. industries to use offsets worth up to 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, part of which could come from forest projects here and abroad.
A new climate treaty scheduled to be signed in Copenhagen in December may allow industrial countries to offset emissions with forest-saving projects in Brazil, Indonesia and other developing nations.
Ripe for fraud?
But the carbon commodity business is controversial. Critics fear that poorly regulated offsets could hand a get-out-of-jail-free card to heavy polluters. Should a coal-fired power plant in Nevada avoid slashing carbon dioxide emissions by paying to preserve trees in Oregon? Is this a complex trading scheme ripe for fraud?
To create trustworthy offsets, California's Air Resources Board two years ago set up the nation's first government-sponsored system to quantify and verify carbon. Those rules are being rewritten for possible use by other states.
"Companies having a hard time meeting their carbon emission limits may want to invest in forestry as a way to cut costs," said Mary D. Nichols, the board's chairwoman. "We have hundreds of thousands of acres of forests that can play a role in helping us to prevent global warming."
Forests are central to Earth's climate because, like oceans, they are a carbon "sink." Through photosynthesis, trees absorb carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas that is heating the planet's atmosphere. Allowing trees to grow larger before logging increases the carbon stored in a forest. So do widening the forested buffers along streams and clearing out underbrush to allow more space for trees. Reforesting areas abandoned to brush or destroyed by wildfire would also greatly boost carbon stock.
"California leads the world with regard to the role of forests in combating climate change," said Chris Kelly, California director for the Conservation Fund, a Virginia-based nonprofit that has sold offsets from Mendocino County preserves. "I just had an inquiry from a Canadian buyer who's expecting Canada to move in the direction set by California."
But so far, big timber operators, including Sierra Pacific Industries and Green Diamond Resource Co., have yet to enroll in California's offsets program. Current standards require owners to agree to a permanent conservation easement, a legal agreement that would guarantee carbon-storage measures in perpetuity. Companies have found that too onerous, and as a result only a handful of woodlands have registered, mainly those managed by conservation groups.
For the last 18 months, members of a task force of environmentalists, timber operators and state officials have been locked in contentious negotiations to revise the rules. The new draft, to go before the Air Resources Board next month, substitutes a 100-year contract for the easement, thus allowing development after a century. It also clarifies rules for companies to quantify and verify carbon.
At least one environmental group is uncomfortable with the changes. "By removing the easement, you leave the system open to gaming," said Brian Nowicki, a forest specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
"The timber industry wants 'business as usual' practices, like clear-cutting, to qualify for carbon credit."