Old Trees Used to Build Up Carbon Credits

For many people, buying carbon offsets has become a way to go personally "carbon neutral." But these voluntary efforts are entirely unregulated and in California, that's beginning to change. The Golden State is trying to bring credibility to carbon credits using a forest of old trees where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nancy Pelosi have bought credits to off-set their air travel.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Are you feeling guilty about the carbon footprint of that gas guzzler in the driveway? Afraid your business flights are melting the polar ice caps? Well, many people are and some are easing their guilt but buying carbon offsets. These credits basically pay someone else to prevent greenhouse gas emissions by installing a wind farm, preserving a forest or even capturing methane from a dairy.

Reporter Tamara Keith of member station KQED in San Francisco reports on California's efforts.

TAMARA KEITH: A year ago Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger came under fire for flying around in a private jet promoting the state's green credentials and emitting tons of carbon along the way. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faced a similar PR problem, and they both silenced the critics by announcing they'd purchased carbon credits from the Van Eck Forest in Humboldt County.

Ms. LAURIE WAYBURN (Guide, President, Pacific Forest Trust): Lot of birds in the upper county today.

KEITH: Just a splash of sunlight filters through the redwood and Douglas fir trees that tower overhead in this forest. Lori Wayburn is showing me around.

Ms. WAYBURN: And you look down there and you look at the skunk cabbage, you could well imagine that you were in a virgin forest.

KEITH: Wayburn is president of the Pacific Forest Trust, which is managing this 2,200-acre forest on the northern California coast. Wayburn explains that old trees, with their deep roots, expansive canopies and thick trunks capture and store more carbon more quickly than younger trees.

So over the coming century, forest managers will allow these trees to grow much larger than those in conventionally managed forests.

Ms. WAYBURN: What we're doing is growing trees into the hundred and hundreds-plus years of age.

KEITH: And all the extra carbon sequestered by allowing these trees to become centenarians can be sold as carbon offsets. Up until now only large corporations and big-name politicians could buy credits from the Van Eck. But they'll soon be available to regular people like me. And really these days carbon credits aren't hard to come by.

(Soundbite of tapping)

KEITH: So, I'm on the Internet and I've put in 2006 Subaru Outback Wagon and it says it will cost me $63 to offset my mileage. But this other site I found said it would cost $94.05 to offset my driving.

Ms. LAURA HARNISH (Regional Director, Environmental Defense Fund): There's really no way to guarantee what it is that you're actually buying.

KEITH: Laura Harnish is regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund. And she says thousands of people are trying to cure their eco-depression by offsetting their personal carbon footprint.

Ms. HARNISH: You know, I mean, you read the news and it looks pretty dire and so to have the sense that there is something you can do individually to contribute that's real is really important.

KEITH: Problem is, carbon credits are completely unregulated in California and the rest of the country. Harnish and her organization are pushing the state legislature here to change that. At this point, the closest California comes to state oversight is a well-respected nonprofit organization called the California Climate Action Registry. Gary Gero is president.

Mr. GARY GERO (President, California Climate Action Registry): In any new and emerging market there's going to be some players who are looking to make a quick buck and others who are really interested in quality.

KEITH: So, the registry has created rigorous standards for evaluating carbon offsets from forests, landfills and livestock operations.

Mr. GERO: We're trying to make sure that quality is always there, and only quality projects will be registered with us.

KEITH: The California Air Resources Board recently backed the registry's forest standards. These influential regulators will implement California's climate change prevention legislation, the first such legislation in the nation. So their endorsement of the registry goes a long way.

The Van Eck is one of two forests now certified by the registry.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

KEITH: Hiking a muddy trail through the forest, Lori Wayburn is convinced about the positive impact forests can have on climate change.

Ms. WAYBURN: The loss of forest and the depletion of forest is the second-largest cause of CO2 emissions. Between 20 and 25 percent of today's emissions are...

(Soundbite of howling)

Ms. WAYBURN: That's I don't know.

KEITH: That call of a spotted owl stops her in her tracks.

Ms. WAYBURN: Let's go down and see this owl.

KEITH: We've stumbled on a pair of these iconic endangered species, and they're so close we can look them in the eyes.

Ms. WAYBURN: This is just tremendously exciting.

KEITH: And more than that, Wayburn says...

Ms. WAYBURN: One of the co-benefits of managing forests for their climate benefits is that you're restoring the forest to what it can naturally do, and that means that all the threatened and endangered species who have been losing habitat can return.

KEITH: And for some, knowing they've helped protect a forest and the critters who live inside may be just as valuable as offsetting a drive to the grocery store. For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith.

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