Climate Action Reserve Plans User-friendly Makeover of Urban Forest Protocol

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By Gloria Gonzalez

Urban forestry is one of the few project types allowed into California’s cap-and-trade program, but activity under the protocol has been almost non-existent in both the voluntary and compliance markets due to substantial costs and other challenges. The Climate Action Reserve is hoping to change that. 

Photos by Kirsten Howard.

Urban trees play a host of important roles. They’re air conditioners. They’re crime-stoppers. They remove tens of metric tons of particulate matter from cities. And they’re carbon sequesters. The US Forest Service estimates that urban trees in the United States sequester 25.6 million tonnes of carbon annually, at an estimated value of $2 billion – based on government projections of the social cost of carbon.

But this value isn’t yet accounted for in the marketplace, and cities often struggle to build and maintain urban canopy because of the costs of planting and caring for trees. The Climate Action Reserve (CAR) is trying to change that by making their urban forestry protocol more user-friendly.  

The first version of the urban forest protocol, which guides the quantification and verification of greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions from urban tree planting and maintenance activities by municipalities, educational institutions and utilities, was adopted by the CAR board in August 2008 and revised in March 2010. In October 2011, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) approved urban forestry as one of four offset project types eligible to produce carbon offsets for its cap-and-trade program.

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But only one project has ever been listed with CAR under the urban forestry protocol – a project to plant 1,000 trees by the City of Santa Monica – and no compliance offsets have been issued under the protocol by the ARB. CAR officials have received consistent feedback that the current version is too challenging to facilitate the development of a pipeline of carbon offsets.

“That’s problematic—we want our protocols to be used,” John Nickerson, CAR’s Director of Forestry, said Wednesday during the Navigating the American Carbon World 2014 conference in San Francisco.  

So, with support from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CalFire) and the US Forest Service, CAR embarked on a review and proposed update of the urban forest protocol aimed at addressing the challenges cited by stakeholders.

The Makeover

The major challenges to development of offset projects under the current urban forestry protocol are the 100-year permanence requirements – which mandate that the carbon associated with credited GHG reductions and removals remains stored for at least 100 years – and the substantial expense of urban tree planting projects, along with the associated transaction, reporting and monitoring costs, Nickerson said. In addition, the scope for urban forest projects was limited in terms of project location, activities – the current protocol does not recognize the value in avoided conversion – and eligible organizations.

Baltimore tree“Some of these challenges we can work with and some challenges we just cannot work with,” he said.

The requirement for urban forest projects to monitor, report and undergo verification activities for 100 years following the last offset issued to the project will stand.

“While we recognize this is a burden to many people, for our project offsets to be credible, we need to address permanence in a credible way,” he said. “The 100 years has been a standard that we’ve used for a long time. It’s based on (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) standards.”

However, the proposed update would address some of these issues by:

  • Expanding the scope of eligible urban forest projects beyond street trees to include trees located in parks, private lots, open space and other areas not currently eligible.
  • Eliminating a costly requirement to inventory every tree within and outside the project area.
  • Making urban forest management projects that commit to increasing existing inventories relative to baseline levels eligible to generate carbon offsets. Currently, only urban tree planting activities are eligible under the protocol.
  • Creating a buffer pool to cover any unavoidable reversals such as tree loss caused by fire or disease by requiring all urban forest projects to contribute 6% of generated offsets to the pool.
  • Establishing a set of environmental and social co-benefits around themes such as biodiversity, native species and air and water quality and mandating that projects developed by public entities describe how their projects will address them in project design documents.

It is unclear what impact these potential changes could have. There has not been a quantitative analysis, for example, of whether eliminating the every tree inventory requirement will significantly improve the economics of these projects, he acknowledged.

“It should result in savings, but we haven’t actually conducted those types of analyses,” Nickerson said.

The Path Forward

CAR is accepting public comments on the proposed revisions through April 25, with the goal of getting it in front of the CAR board for approval in June, but the proposed update could change between now and then. One potential change is to split it into two different protocols for urban tree planting and urban forest management to reduce complexity, he said.

Once the board approves the revised protocol, it can then be used for the development of voluntary carbon offset projects. The ARB would need to perform its own evaluation to see whether the updated protocol could be brought into the compliance regime.

“I think they recognize some of the challenges with the current protocol and they’ve been supportive as to where we’re going,” Nickerson said. “They will be interested in seeing the results of our work.”

Whether the proposed revisions lead to additional project development remains to be seen. There has been interest in the protocol among workgroup participants such as CalFire and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, but it would be ideal if one of these organizations would fund a pilot project to road test the updated protocol, he said. 

“I really think we need a champion of this protocol to show that it can work,” Nickerson said.