Urban forest carbon credits gain momentum

After the largest purchase of urban forest carbon credits in U.S.

After the largest purchase of urban forest carbon credits in U.S. history, more cities and corporations may start to see how investing in trees also benefits resident health and well-being.

This spring, a group of 13 government entities and other organizations with urban forestry projects collectively earned more than $1 million by selling carbon credits. A carbon credit is a certificate that represents the reduction of one metric ton of CO2 or its equivalent in another greenhouse gas. This revenue can go back to supporting tree planting and management programs.

People who buy and sell things in the market say that the rising price of carbon credits for protecting urban forests means that people are increasingly recognizing the benefits to city dwellers of protecting these forests. They also say that there could be a slowdown in growth because of a lack of binding requirements to participate, limited awareness of the ability of urban forests to offer credits, and minimal capacity on the part of local governments to propagate such programs.

A carbon credit is a permit that represents the removal of carbon dioxide (or an equivalent of greenhouse gases) from the atmosphere. Companies can buy these credits to compensate for their own environmental impacts. While forestry-related credits are among the more common options available, they have been criticized for enabling companies to appear environmentally friendly without actually reducing greenhouse gas levels.

Supporters say that urban forest carbon credits offer a variety of benefits beyond just the protection of trees. These benefits include improved community air quality and people's mental health.

Kathleen Farley Wolf, who manages the King County Forest Carbon Program, said that the credits from the million-dollar deal this spring went to King County. She also said that one of the most notable aspects of the deal was how much the credits were worth. The credits were sold for between $34 and $45 per metric ton of carbon, compared to 2020 published pricing for global forest carbon credits between $2 and $10 per credit.

"That price is a signal that these kinds of projects are highly valued and that there's recognition that doing urban forest projects is expensive. Cities are expensive, suburbs are expensive. We're in a particularly expensive area here in King County," Farley Wolf said.

There is growing demand for carbon credits from businesses that want to become "net-zero." A company achieves net-zero status when it eliminates more greenhouse gas emissions than it produces. Liz Johnston, the director of City Forest Credits, said that there has been a surge in this type of commitment. City Forest Credits is an organization founded in 2015 that promotes and manages carbon credits from urban forests.

Despite these limitations, marketing urban forest carbon credits has potential because the amount of urban forest acreage is less than other forests. However, in order to make this possible, an entity interested in marketing these carbon credits would need a local program implementer. Unfortunately, some municipal governments may not have the administrative capacity to take on that role. This is according to Molly Henry, director of climate and health at the national nonprofit American Forests.

American Forests is working with the city of Providence, Rhode Island to help them plant trees. The city was going to plant trees anyway, but this will help them make money and take some pressure off of their budget.

Now, local governments are realizing the benefits of urban forests. These forests provide many advantages like quantifiable health benefits for people living near them. With issues like extreme heat and poor air quality becoming more common, the importance of these forests will only continue to grow.

Henry also noted that some carbon credits now are focused on not just removing carbon from the atmosphere, but are coupled with other benefits unique to urban trees compared with those in a natural forested landscape. Farley Wolf also said King County has worked to create interest among local buyers specifically interested in protecting local forests.

For now, people can choose to participate in carbon credit marketplaces. But if more companies or municipalities make commitments, or if the government makes binding regulations, the market will change.

Although awareness about urban forest opportunities is growing, there is still more work to be done. Henry noted that City Forest Credits is a fairly young organization, and that people don't usually think of investing in urban forests. He also said that 'urban forest' is not a term that many people are familiar with.

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