Using big trees to fight global warming

  • Environment
  • Tuesday, 02 Feb 2016

Trees remove the carbon molecules that are warming our atmosphere. The bigger the tree, the more carbon it stores. Photo: Reuters


Lush and lofty, the big trees in a 200ha forest gracing the vista of Mount Rainier in Washington in the US are now doing double duty, in the first-ever carbon-capture programme of its kind in the US Pacific Northwest.

Microsoft bought the carbon credits in this forest under California’s rigorously verified cap-and-trade programme. Washington state has no such programme. The purchase was part of the company’s voluntary US$20mil-a-year (RM86mil) effort offsetting 100% of its carbon emissions worldwide across all operations, from employee air travel to energy use.

The forest, near Ashford in the Nisqually watershed, will generate 37,000 carbon offset credits, the equivalent of taking 6,000 cars off the road. And the total will get bigger as the trees do.

Microsoft bought 35,000 of the credits from the Nisqually Land Trust for an undisclosed price. The purchase helped the trust buy the US$3.3mil (RM14mil) property, taking the land out of industrial forestry. Under the programme and the land trust’s ownership, the trees will have a chance to get big and fat, as they gobble carbon dioxide from the air for at least the next 100 years.

Through photosynthesis, trees, using only water and light energy from the sun, split the carbon from carbon dioxide to make sugar for food. Trees are the carbon cycle made visible: they take the carbon molecules that are warming our atmosphere right out of the air and store them in their wood, roots and leaves. The bigger the tree, the more carbon it stores.

Enlisting forests in the fight against global warming does double duty, notes Becky Kelley, president of the Washington Environmental Council, which helped put the deal together. Carbon-credit programmes provide landowners the financial incentive to keep big trees rather than cut them. And they provide a reason for credit purchasers to invest in preserving forests.

Every tree counts, but bigger trees at least 40 years old are the real carbon hogs that get the work of cleaning the air done. With their larger root mass, they also are the champions of holding soil and cleansing water. Trees don’t just stand there, they make life, and sustain it. The Nisqually forest benefits threatened spotted owls and marbled murrelets, as well as a catenation of other animals, from bats to swifts, frogs, cutthroat trout, pileated woodpeckers and Northern goshawks.

“Forests provide so many values beyond lumber,” Kelley said. “Yet those other benefits aren’t well accounted for financially. It can be hard for landowners to make it pencil. We are trying to get people to grow bigger trees and leave them standing longer. Older forests are a twofer in terms of helping us deal with climate change,” Kelley said. “They pull pollution out of the air and help moderate the effects of climate change on our communities.”

Joe Kane, executive director of the Nisqually Land Trust, notes the purchase also creates the revenue the trust needs to maintain the forest over the years, for taking out logging roads, or thinning to help the forest achieve robust growth.

For Microsoft, the forest was a way to look closer to home for its ambitious carbon-offset programme, which includes projects all over the world, said Rob Bernard, chief of environmental strategies for Microsoft. The company voluntarily deploys a range of strategies to be carbon-neutral.

Every Microsoft department is charged an internal fee based on the amount of carbon pollution produced. Money from the fee is used to pay for energy efficiency projects and the purchase of green power, and to deploy 30 projects in 23 countries to offset the company’s carbon pollution, with everything from cleaner cook stoves in Kenya, to solar water heaters in India, and forest preservation and replanting in Borneo. The fund also pays for grants for employees with project ideas of their own, such as an electric bike programme running in Finland.

In addition to offsets, the company seeks to reduce its emissions through energy efficiency initiatives and purchases of green power, Bernard said. Microsoft is the second-largest purchaser of green power in the United States, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Since its inception, the overall programme has reduced Microsoft’s carbon dioxide emissions by 7.5 million tonnes, the equivalent of nearly 29 billion km driven by cars, according to calculations by the EPA.

The carbon-neutral policy enables Microsoft’s customers to offset some of their own pollution, by using the company’s cloud computing services. The company began the offset programme three years ago, Bernard said. “We just believe it is important to be accountable for our carbon. It’s important to do this for ourselves, and our customers, and the planet.”

Programmes like Microsoft’s Nisqually purchase could become more common under a carbon cap being drafted by the state Department of Ecology. Under it, the state’s largest emitters would have a choice of reducing carbon pollution on-site, or buying credits through the California programme or others that result in verifiable net reductions of carbon emissions, to keep big polluters under the mandatory cap. – The Seattle Times/Tribune News Service

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