Carbon credits for urban forests represent a new variant of an established investment. Companies have long been able to buy carbon credits to offset their emissions of greenhouse gases. That is, investing in technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere neutralizes a part of the carbon that the company’s operations add.
Forests are among common carbon offset projects. Everyone knows that trees take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen
Most people probably don’t think of forests and urban areas in the same thought, but urban forests offer numerous benefits besides removing carbon dioxide from the air. City forest credits provide a new way to monetize their value.
The value of urban forests
American urban forests store more than 706 million tons of carbon and capture some 28.2 million tons of additional carbon every year. Yet this resource remains underappreciated and neglected.
Cities often plant trees along city streets and in parks. Sometimes they landscape urban expressways with trees. Many feature arboretums, forest preserves, greenways, or preserved wetlands. In addition, citizens plant trees in their yards. Undeveloped property probably has dense tree cover.
More than 80% of Americans live in towns and cities. The urban population is growing faster than the American population as a whole.
Unfortunately, at the same time population is growing, the urban tree canopy is shrinking. Urban areas lose about 36 million trees every year. Tree cover can decline even in cities that actively promote planting new trees.
Trees get old and die. They fall in storms or floods that make the ground too wet to keep them upright. Any major development, whether new housing, new businesses, or highway construction, entails cutting down many trees.
With tight city budgets, planting and maintaining trees can seem like an unaffordable luxury. Yet trees offer numerous benefits, including but not limited to the following:
- They capture and sequester carbon dioxide and, in return, transpire oxygen and water vapor.
- They remove other pollutants from air, water, and soil.
- Having shade from enough trees provides reduces urban hotspots and heat islands. Heat kills more people than any other weather event. Tree cover can lower temperatures and therefore save lives.
- Enough trees can also reduce stormwater runoff and flooding.
- Trees make a good sound barrier and slow windspeed.
- Trees are beautiful. Their beauty provides a calming effect that can actually reduce stress, crime, and violence.
- They attract a variety of birds and beneficial insects that eat insect pests.
Problems for urban forests
While trees on private property provide all those environmental benefits, most of the onus for planting and maintaining the urban forest rests on city governments. It costs a lot of money.
Cutting down trees for various urban development programs stirs economic activity. It creates jobs. It makes room for a growing population to live, work, and shop. And it creates traffic patterns to move people efficiently from one place to another. In other words, cutting down trees may even seem like a good thing for the local economy.
As with many other assets, urban forests are not equitably distributed. Wealthy areas have much more tree cover than poorer neighborhoods. As a result, poorer areas, without trees, can be as much as 12 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than areas with more trees. It will take half a billion new trees just to address this disparity. And yet many cities are actually losing tree cover.
As things stand now, cities have no way to compare the asset value of trees against the expense of planting and maintaining them. And they receive little state and federal funding for trees. The kind of private-sector funding represented by urban forest carbon credits can probably help cities more than state and federal funding. A handful of cities have begun urban forestry projects funded by carbon credits in recent years.
Carbon credits for planting trees
Under pressure from customers and stockholders, more and more companies have pledged to become carbon neutral. In part, meeting that goal requires streamlining operations, turning to renewable energy, and replacing their fleets with electric vehicles.
Even the most ambitious sustainability programs cannot achieve carbon neutrality quickly. Enter carbon offsets. A corporation that wants to speed its path there (or a greenwashing company that merely wants to appear eco-friendly) can buy tradeable certificates. They verify investment in projects that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. If their own emissions equal no more than the credits they buy, they can claim carbon neutrality.
Companies (or for that matter individuals) can buy credits for a variety of projects. Planting trees represents one important category among several others.
Most forest-related carbon credits have been issued for forests far from any urban areas, such as tropical rainforests. They are effective at reducing emissions. They need to continue. But carbon offsets for urban forests specifically fund the important benefits that the more rural programs can’t match.
A new concept: carbon credits for urban forests
City Forest Credits (CFC), a Seattle-based non-profit registry organization, promotes, manages, and issues carbon credits for urban forests. These credits are offered exclusively for the unique challenges and opportunities of urban areas. CFC projects that as more corporations pledge net-zero carbon emissions, demand for the credits will grow.
CFC has developed special protocols for the credits. They involve working with a local operator, very likely a municipal government. CFC issues credits to the local operator and monitors the operation for compliance.
The local operator plants and protects trees according to the protocols. Then it sells the credits to offset a corporation’s carbon emissions. That is, proceeds from the credits cover the costs of planting and maintaining the trees.
For the program to grow, it must overcome some obstacles. For one thing, not enough people even know about the value of urban forests. Many urban governments view planting trees as an expense and choose to spend the money on other priorities. They might not financially able to serve as local operators.
On the other hand, Austin, Texas, actually bought carbon credits for its urban forestry efforts instead of selling them.
So far, no system of binding requirements exists. Market pressures do exist, however, as more companies consider making urban forest carbon offsets part of their environmental strategy.
Regen Network a blockchain company, purchased all available carbon credits for urban forests in the United States in April The company paid more than $1 million, or between $34 and $45 per metric ton. In contrast, prices for non-urban forest carbon credits have been between $2 and $10 per metric ton.
The concept of city forest credits is new enough that existing projects barely number in the dozens. It needs to grow to hundreds of participating cities and counties.
Carbon credits to fund urban forests: city forest credits / Mark McPherson and Jordan Wildish, 1t.org US Chapter
Carbon offsets for urban trees are on the horizon / Maria Dolan, Bloomberg. August 28, 2018
Urban forest carbon credits: a potential market for climate investors / Jennifer L, Carbon Credits. June 21, 2022
Urban forest carbon credits gain momentum / Maria Rachal, Smart Cities Dive. June 16, 2022