Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Green Trees for Greenhouse Gases: A Fair Trade-Off?

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Green Trees for Greenhouse Gases: A Fair Trade-Off?

Article excerpt

Deep in northeast Bolivia along the border with Brazil lies a 4-million-acre tract of rain forest called the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park. Home to over 700 species of birds and exotic animals such as the jaguar, howler monkey, and giant anteater, the park was once a prime candidate for the kind of slash-and-burn agriculture decimating tropical forests around the world. But in a remarkable twist of fate, the park is now protected for the next 30 years under an agreement signed by the Bolivian government, The Nature Conservancy, and a Columbus, Ohio-based utility company called American Electric Power (AEP).

What does a rain forest in Bolivia have that an American utility company wants to preserve? The answer is elemental: carbon. While forests retain carbon in plants, detritus, and soils, power plants--including AEP's--spew it into the air as carbon dioxide ([CO.sub.2]), the main greenhouse gas behind global warming. Industrial [CO.sub.2] emissions aren't currently regulated by federal law, but a number of companies are trying to do something about the problem voluntarily. AEP's carbon sequestration program in Bolivia was launched through its involvement with the Climate Challenge Program, a voluntary greenhouse gas reduction effort between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the electric utility industry. According to AEP's calculations, the $9.5 million they would spend to pay for park rangers and other expenses associated with maintaining the forest and thereby protecting the carbon contained within its biota was far less than would have been spent installing equipment to block [CO.sub.2] emissions from its own plants. "And if we wind up saving some tropical species and indigenous cultures along the way, then so much the better," says Dale Heydlauff, AEP's vice president of environmental affairs.

Carbon Sinks Take Root

Many scientists see sequestering carbon in biotic "sinks" such as forests and farmlands in the terrestrial biosphere as a win--win proposition for the environment--"a way to improve the atmosphere while doing things you ought to be doing anyway, like protecting natural resources and promoting sustainable development," says Gregg Marland, a research scientist and expert in carbon sequestration at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Because atmospheric [CO.sub.2] is distributed worldwide, it shouldn't matter if the gas is blocked from being released from the end of a pipe or sequestered in the biosphere as long as there is a net global reduction of it in the atmosphere. Scientists have long suggested that trees--newly planted or never cut down in the first place--could soak up excess [CO.sub.2], but the concept didn't take root with policy makers until 1998, when a report titled The Prospect of Solving the [CO.sub.2] Problem through Global Reforestation was drafted by Marland while he was working with the DOE's Office of Energy Research. This pivotal document suggested that carbon sinks, like emissions reductions, could be credited under an international framework to reduce greenhouse gases. The controversial idea was discussed during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and formed the basis of a carbon crediting system incorporated into the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions during the last hours of negotiations in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 [see "Protocol Primer"].

Carbon sequestration under the Kyoto Protocol falls under land use, land use change, and forestry (LULUCF) activities. The clearest stakeholder consensus concerning how to define these activities is found in Article 3.3 of the protocol, which states that domestic afforestation (planting trees where none existed previously) and reforestation can be counted toward compliance with a country's emissions reduction target, while emissions from deforestation would count against that target. In addition, the language of the protocol stipulates that LULUCF activities can only be credited if they are "human-induced. …

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