Carbon+Credits for Our City Forests
Who will you meet?
Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.
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.
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.
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:
- They store over 900 million tons of CO2
- Annually reduce electricity use by 38.8 million MWh ($4.7 billion), heating use by 246 million MMBtus ($3.1 billion) and avoid thousands of tons of emissions of several pollutants valued at $3.9 billion.
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
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.”
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?
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Why one city decays and another thrives can sometimes seem random. So, trying to foresee downrange why the future will happen in City A and not City B is hard. Moreover, to imagine that there is one formula that all 7.8 billion of us should adhere to, wherever it is we live, is clearly nonsensical.
In our work, we study, research, and rank places to determine what the best practices are to increase economic prosperity, social equity, and quality of life. Ultimately, the question we want to answer is: What is it that makes a city a place of the future? In our research, one thing has become clear to us: next-gen talent is the fuel for the future of place. And by extension, jobs of the future will happen in places of the future.
Digital twins and AI analysis would offer significant benefits to organizations across all sectors. By providing a comprehensive look at a geographical area and its infrastructure and assets, these technologies will enable smarter and more targeted field planning optimization. It could help digitize field surveys, offer new levels of remote engineering access, and enable contact tracing around COVID-19.
The focus will continue to shift away from the data itself and towards its relationships. The connections between data are where the most powerful insights lie. With enough data points, organizations can look to analytics to better understand the context and “see” the future.
AI at scale and emerging data technologies truly illustrate this connectivity and potential. Although it’s an emerging field, the benefits are limitless.
In my business, we’d rather not be right. What gets a climate change expert out of bed in the morning is the desire to provide decision-makers with the best available science, and at the end of the day we go to bed hoping things won’t actually get as bad as our science tells us. That’s true whether you’re a physical or a social scientist.
Well, I’m one of the latter and Meeting of the Minds thought it would be valuable to republish an article I penned in January 2020. In that ancient past, only the most studious of news observers had heard of a virus in Wuhan, China, that was causing a lethal disease. Two months later we were in lockdown, all over the world, and while things have improved a lot in the US since November 2020, in many cities and nations around the world this is not the case. India is living through a COVID nightmare of untold proportions as we speak, and many nations have gone through wave after wave of this pandemic. The end is not in sight. It is not over. Not by a longshot.
And while the pandemic is raging, sea level continues to rise, heatwaves are killing people in one hemisphere or the other, droughts have devastated farmers, floods sent people fleeing to disaster shelters that are not the save havens we once thought them to be, wildfires consumed forests and all too many homes, and emissions dipped temporarily only to shoot up again as we try to go “back to normal.”
So, I’ll say another one of those things I wish I’ll be wrong about, but probably won’t: there is no “back to normal.” Not with climate change in an interdependent world.