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Urban Forest Carbon Registry Works to Create New Revenue for City Trees

November 8th, 2016 · No Comments · --Integrated Systems--, Waste, Water

MarkMBy Mark McPherson  – Executive Director of the Seattle-based Urban Forest Carbon Registry

A key component of sustainable urban infrastructure is so-called green infrastructure – the natural systems that provide utility services like storm water retention, cooling in hot weather, and air quality improvements.  Trees are among the most important, and often overlooked components of green infrastructure in cities.

Urban trees store carbon, intercept storm water, stabilize steep slopes, provide bird and wildlife habitat, clean particulate pollution, and improve public health.  And they deliver these ecosystem services in cities and towns, where 80% of the population lives and works.

Despite their many benefits, our urban forests are very poorly funded.  Cities, utilities and property developers have historically viewed trees as a cost, not a benefit, other than being aesthetically pleasing.

Even though these attitudes are changing, cities are now struggling to provide basic human services, public safety, and transportation, with trees falling to the bottom of their priority list.  Yet development and growth are causing a decline in urban tree cover nationwide.  And disadvantaged communities have fewer trees than wealthy ones, a clear environmental injustice.

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Areas of lowest tree cover (outlined in red) are almost all in the lowest income areas in Seattle (shown in dark blue)

The Seattle-based Urban Forest Carbon Registry is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization that is working to open a new funding source for urban forests – voluntary carbon buyers.  These buyers are organizations that have voluntarily chosen to reduce their carbon footprint and are doing so by buying carbon offsets.

Carbon buyers purchased $700 million in carbon credits in the U.S. over the last decade ($4.5 billion worldwide). Yet not a single dollar of that money can go to the trees in the cities and towns of America.

The urban forests of Washington and the U.S. are long overdue to earn certified carbon credits.

The Urban Forest Carbon Registry is developing a carbon protocol for urban forestry projects, which will be the “rulebook” that projects must follow to earn certified credits. The Registry is also establishing the functions to accept applications from urban forest projects, track and verify that those projects have complied with the protocol, and issue and track certified credits to those projects.

The Registry has assembled a national group of stakeholders from many areas of urban forestry—municipal foresters, non-profit organizations, utility providers, tree care industry professionals, scientists, etc., to draft two urban forest protocols, one for tree planting and a second for tree preservation.

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Here is how the credits will work:

An applicant wishing to obtain credits will design an urban forestry project according to the protocol. The applicant will follow the rules of the protocol, and submit an application to the Urban Forest Carbon Registry requesting credits for their project.

The Registry will review the application, verify compliance with the protocol and the quantification of carbon stored, and issue certified credits to the project. Carbon buyers will purchase credits from project applicants directly and not from the Registry. This puts revenue from certified carbon credit sales directly in the hands of those who need those monies to recoup initial project costs, maintain the credited trees, or fund other urban forestry projects that in turn may be eligible for additional credits.

An innovation of this project is that the Urban Forest Carbon Registry is creating “bundled” credits.  These credits will include the added value of other ecosystem benefits, such as storm water retention, cooling, and air quality improvements in addition to the value of carbon.

This system will establish a new funding source for urban and community forestry in the United States, however there is more work to be done and many challenges.  Can the Registry develop protocols that work for both urban forestry and carbon buyers?  Urban trees are much more expensive to plant and maintain than forest trees, but will buyers pay a higher price for urban credits?

Moreover, some climate advocates oppose carbon offsets in principle, arguing that carbon emissions should be regulated directly and that offsets allow carbon emitters to greenwash their polluting.  Others feel that only the most stringent offset standards can pass muster, including requirements like a 100-year permanence standard, a longevity requirement that is not workable for urban trees.

Many of these rigorous standards were developed for projects in industrial or forestry settings, where the profit motive shadows every decision.  Urban forestry, by contrast, has no harvests and no profits.  The urban forest is essentially a public good.

The Urban Forest Carbon Registry just posted its first drafts of the urban forest protocols on its website at www.ufregistry.org. You can help this effort by reviewing the protocol drafts and submitting comments on them.

The goal of this work is to make our cities greener, healthier, and more livable by enabling cities and towns, non-profit organizations, educational institutions, utilities, water sheds, and other stakeholders to supplement their urban forestry program dollars with carbon revenues.

Please go to www.ufregistry.org to download copies of the protocols or learn more about the Urban Forest Carbon Registry.

Mark McPherson is the Executive Director of the Seattle-based Urban Forest Carbon Registry. Mark is a lawyer and business person and has been active in urban forestry for many years.

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