One hot day this spring John Buckley scrambled up a dusty slope of a patch of deforested land in the middle of California’s Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada, five miles west of Yosemite National Park, and surveyed the bleak landscape: 20 acres of blackened tree stumps and the shriveled remains of undergrowth. On neighboring ridges, similar brown expanses dotted the green forest canopy. “This,” he said, spreading his arms wide, “is resource management.”
The denuded clearing is on a tract of private forestland owned by timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries that is close to being approved as a sort of carbon bank under California’s new cap-and-trade scheme. It will soon grow into a plantation of mostly Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and cedar.
Based on calculations of how much carbon the new and old trees in this forest area will remove from the atmosphere, the timber giant will soon be able to sell carbon credits, which regulators call “offsets,” to the largest California polluters so they can compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions. Looking to make a profit from their environmental practices, companies in forestry and other industries are rushing to meet the demand.
Buckley, an environmental activist from Tuolumne County, is dismayed that projects like these—that involve clearing out old, diverse forests and replanting the area with a handful of quick-growing timber varieties—are being considered as a means to enable California industries to emit more pollutants into the air.
Many environmentalists say that because it is notoriously difficult to prove that such projects actually reduce the state’s overall carbon footprint, California should proceed slowly in approving a vast expansion of the cap-and-trade market.
The plan is to start the Compliance Offset Program this summer. Sellers include some of the largest forestland owners in the U.S., dairy farms and companies that neutralize greenhouse effect-producing refrigerants. The program might also expand to other activities, such as methane capture from mining and rice farming.
Proponents say that by providing incentives to voluntarily reduce emissions and use new technology, the offset program could help California meet its legal requirement, set in 2006, to reduce its carbon footprint from all sources by about 16 percent by 2020, and even more in later years.
But critics call offsets a loophole that could undermine an effective cap-and-trade system. They say pledges of reductions that are not required by law often cannot be considered real, since companies might have made them anyway without the extra money from selling offsets. Left unchecked, the critics warn, poorly measured offsets could lead to an overall increase in California’s emissions. Read more…