Carbon+Credits for Our City Forests

By Mark McPherson

Mark McPherson is a lawyer and business person in Seattle who has long been active in urban forestry; he is the founder and executive director of City Forest Credits.

May 28, 2019 | Governance, Resources | 1 comment

Carbon credits for forests have been around for more than 25 years. Why hasn’t anyone developed credits for our city trees?

Aren’t our city trees valuable, yet declining in number? Don’t the city forests need funding so that our cities can be sustainable?

The answer to all of these questions is: Yes.

35,000,000

That’s the number of trees lost per year in urban and community areas in the U.S., according to a peer-reviewed study published in 2018.

175,000

That’s the number of acres of tree cover lost in urban and community areas. The total land area of tree cover lost from 2009-2015 is greater than the combined land area of New York City, Boston, Miami, Atlanta, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Seattle.

The only reason we don’t walk into cities like Seattle and see them clear-cut, is that tree loss in cities is death by a thousand cuts. A tree here, a cleared building lot there, a new playfield cleared in a forested park, a downtown tower that replaces mature trees with a few straggly saplings.

This tree loss is occurring just as our cities need trees the most. City forests:

  • Reduce storm water
  • Improve air quality
  • Cool cities in hot weather
  • Store carbon
  • Stabilize slopes
  • Provide bird and wildlife habitat
  • Provided social benefits like crime reduction
  • Promote human mental and physical health

Researchers have documented the inequity of tree-canopy distribution in many cities, with far fewer trees in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The aggregate benefits of our city forests in the U.S. are staggering:

City trees are like utilities. If they didn’t exist, we would invent them. And give a Nobel Prize to the inventors.

 

A City Tree is Worth More Dead Than Alive

Public funding for urban forests, a critical public resource, is falling short.

Many cities allow property developers to remove trees with no fee or penalty. And even in cities that do charge fees, the development value of the land under a tree is almost always greater than any fee or penalty a developer will pay for removing the tree.

So the developers pay the fees. The tree is more valuable dead than alive.

In addition, when city financial managers draw up their budgets, trees are booked as an expense. So-called “natural capital” is not carried as an asset on balance sheets.

So the only accounting reality for our city trees is as expenses, not as assets. And city budgets are already strained meeting the needs of human services, public safety, affordable housing, transit, and more.

 

Harnessing Private Sector Funding for Green, Healthy, Equitable City Forests

There are certainly plenty of corporate dollars that flow to similar things as city trees:

  • Companies bought carbon credits totaling $662 million world-wide in 2016
  • Corporate sustainability and social responsibility spending in 2016 was over $15 billion
  • Companies like Coca-Cola have a water sustainability program that contributes to water quality and quantity projects that deliver quantified results. Not to mention cities and utilities that have various storm water requirements
  • Many tech companies now have new physical locations in cities and towns – data centers for example. A social license to operate becomes a new and important priority for them

What are three things almost every one of these companies want?

  • Quantified outcomes
  • A presence in cities and towns
  • Reliable and efficient ways to make these contributions or investments

What can our city trees provide?

  • Quantified and multiple benefits
  • Local benefits delivered where 80% of the population lives, to customers and employees and voters who live and work in cities and towns

The only missing link is the silver bullet app; the tool that can connect these willing corporate funders with our city forests.

Our non-profit group, City Forest Credits, came together three years ago to create that app. It’s not a tech tool or an API. It’s urban forest and climate people from around the U.S. who developed two protocols – rulebooks really – for planting and preserving city trees.

And it’s urban forest scientists who developed a first-ever bundled carbon credit that includes multiple quantified values. Each City Forest Carbon+ Credit includes:

  • A metric ton of CO2
  • Rainfall interception in cubic meters (storm water run-off reduction)
  • Energy savings for cooling in kWh/year and for heating in kBtu/year
  • Air quality in quantified tons for O3, NOx, PM10, and Net VOCs

With these two elements city forest projects now have something valuable to give to companies in exchange for their funding:

1) The national protocols or rulebooks that ensure proper local implementation and

2) the unique locally sourced Carbon+ Credits

Not just a warm and fuzzy for planting trees, but quantified values, third-party oversight, locally sourced credits, and an efficient, reliable way to invest in selected projects and cities.

 

What do City Forest Carbon+ Projects Look Like?

Here are a few examples of what’s possible.

Des Moines, IA

Microsoft has a large data center in Des Moines. Microsoft, Trees Forever (a non-profit tree organization in Des Moines), and City Forest Credits worked to assemble what is likely the first project in the world with the following triple+ bottom line elements:

  • Quantified environmental benefits and Carbon+ Credits in the city (through City Forest Credits)
  • Social benefits via involvement of a youth shelter in planting and tree care
  • Economic and social benefits via a new work force training program in tree care, Growing Futures, which employs and trains under-employed youth and youth of color in Des Moines.
  • Community education through a relationship with the Science Center
  • Employee engagement for Microsoft in tree planting and care, youth mentoring, work force enrichment, or technical aspect

Austin, TX

The City of Austin has been implementing greenhouse gas reduction plans for years, but to be entirely carbon neutral the City needs to utilize carbon offsets. The City of Austin wants locally sourced carbon credits so its carbon dollars and the environmental benefits stay local.

A large group of stakeholders in Austin worked together to make their city forest carbon program a reality. The City Office of Sustainability, the urban forest staff, the Department of Watersheds, the Climate Program Manager, and the local non-profit tree organization, TreeFolks, have begun a multi-year program to plant hundreds of miles of streams and rivers in the central Texas area. Their focus is on water quality, storm water reductions, flood control, carbon storage, and climate mitigation.

“I think the work is innovative and potentially game-changing,” said Zach Baumer, climate program manager for the City of Austin, quoted here from CityLab, Grist, and Mother Jones. Baumer also serves on the protocol drafting group for City Forest Credits. “To harness the market to create environmental benefits in cities is a great thing.”

Shoreline, WA

Bank of America funded this city forest carbon+ project in a city north of Seattle. It launched on Dec. 1, 2018 with 45 volunteers planting 200 trees out of a total of 2,000 to be planted in the next 12 months. The site is public land currently inaccessible due to blackberries and is adjacent to a subsidized public housing facility. The project promotes environmental justice and provides all the quantified benefits contained in the Carbon+ Credit.

 

From Perspiration to Inspiration

Quantifying the ecosystem values of city trees and developing a carbon credit may sound complicated. But the idea is simple.

Let’s open the way for willing corporate dollars to flow to our city forests. These forests are public resources, in decline, and critical to keeping our cities green, healthy, and equitable.

Think of it this way:

  • The tree in front of your house, apartment, or office is a word
  • The trees on your street are a sentence
  • The trees in your neighborhood are a paragraph
  • The trees in your city are a story

What will our story be?

Discussion

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1 Comment

  1. I love this! I look forward to incorporating it into our future planning and development projects.

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