December 19, 2007 | General

Climate Change Connections: Carbon Credits — 1040 EZ Version 1

BioCycle December 2007, Vol. 48, No. 12, p. 19
Sally Brown

WHEN I first started trying to understand this whole process of carbon credits and carbon accounting, I did it using the framework of the King County, Washington biosolids recycling program. I went through a bunch of iterations, looking at the County’s existing program and then attempted to find ways to optimize the use of the biosolids to accrue carbon credits. This was really enjoyable, like a new puzzle with new rules where you try to make stuff come out the best way possible.
Using my understanding of different greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon sequestration process in soils and plants, I came up with a bunch of ways that King County could help the world. A lot of the data I used wasn’t generated specifically for this purpose. For example, tree growth response to fertilizer application information (King County applies a portion of its biosolids to commercial forest plantations) was researched primarily because bigger trees sell for more money – but it was pretty clear how this data could be used for greenhouse gas emissions and sequestration. I came up with a plan and talked to the people at King County and we all got excited. Then they talked about how to get official recognition for this and the logical way appeared to be with official, quantified carbon credits.
I went searching on the Internet for the carbon forestation protocol about commercial forest plantations that are managed using fertilizers. Everybody knows about the importance of forests for sequestering greenhouse gases (GHG). I knew that there was a forestry protocol at the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) and a big section in the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) literature about Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF). So I figured, this is accounting and you just look it up under Forestry, section 10B, see reference section on explanations page 27d of the attached guidelines and then they’d have one of those charts where you look for type of tree or acreage. You know, like that big stack of forms and instructions that you down load from the Internal Revenue Service.
That wasn’t what I found. At the CCX there was almost a page (lots of pictures) that said forests had trees and that trees were good. At IPCC there were pages and pages, but most of the stuff was different arguments about what a forest was. There didn’t appear to be any agreement on this, just lots of different arguments. I got furious – what kind of accounting system was this? How was I supposed to quantify GHG credits for forest fertilization of Douglas Fir in King County on the different soil types by rate and frequency of application when these guys couldn’t agree on what a regular forest was, let alone a managed tree plantation?
Then I got excited. This is a big opportunity, I realized. This is the beginning of the whole process where you have the chance to write or at least have a say in the code. This means that not only is there the potential that you will understand what is written (unlike those forms from the IRS), there is also the possibility that there is some logic behind those codes. And this is the key point.
Greenhouse gas accounting is a very new process. It is an essential process and because of its importance, different approaches have been taken. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the international arm of the IPCC that quantifies GHG reductions for specific projects in developing countries, is trying really hard to get things right as they write their rules. As a consequence, the rules are slow in coming and are often subject to change. The CCX has a different approach – they want to do stuff now or maybe yesterday. But they also need to maintain credibility, which means that they have to be conservative in their reductions estimates. Both organizations are also swamped. That means that they don’t have the time or resources to tackle every potential project or protocol. The big ones, the low hanging fruit, are what will come first. As time and knowledge increase, the sophistication – and the variety – of the protocols also will increase. If you want credits for a practice that is valuable but is not at the top of the list, start collecting pertinent information and monitoring what you do so that when the time comes, you’ll be ready.
As a soil scientist, I’m used to drawing conclusions based on a big base from universities around the world. For carbon sequestration, we don’t have that. So you can take the approach that some scientists will and say, “Oh yes, I’d love to contribute, come see me in 10 years when I have more data.” Or you can take what we know, be both realistic and conservative, and make something that works now that we can come back to in 10 years if needed. That way we can start moving right away. Now you’re talking.
So if you want to do something to help our atmosphere, you can just do the right thing and not worry about the credits. However, if the credits are what will provide the impetus to get something done, I would encourage you to get involved. Get your municipality or your company to join the CCX and work with them. You may have expertise that they need. In my case, how soils work is a place where I can help. And becoming part of the carbon accounting and credit process as it develops will put you in a much better position to understand the outcomes and tools – instead of waiting until you can do things by flipping to Section 27, Reference 22e on page 222 and finding a nice chart, without your tree or soil type. By this time it might be too late.
Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and will be authoring this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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