‘Standing Live Carbon’ (Formerly Known as ‘Trees’)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

And surely there's no harm in
Calling a tree "live standing carbon."

Yea, verily we are far from the world of Joyce Kilmer, the only man I've ever heard of named Joyce, a poet whose career was cut short by a sniper's bullet during the waning months of World War I. Back in his day, one might rhapsodize unironically about trees and not be called a tree-hugger. Back in his day, whole forests could be brought crashing to the ground and few in the wider world would doubt it was the sound of progress.

We're wiser now. Look at California. We've got a law on the books that mandates that we cut our greenhouse gas emissions. We're about to embark on a new carbon "cap and trade" system that recognizes the value of forests. So it is that later this week, when the California Air Resources Board meets to consider adopting the cap and trade protocols, trees will turn into "standing live carbon" and forests will become places where the market stores carbon. I'll hardly think of those big wood things the same way.

According to some who have studied the Air Resources Board's plan (131-page PDF) for using forests as an offset opportunity for we who pollute elsewhere, the plan appears to reward the timber industry for clear-cutting forests and "improving" them with species that store more carbon. A single company that might benefit from this arrangement: Sierra Pacific Industries, which has long been the bete noir of those who believe that chainsaws, bulldozers, tree plantations, and biodiversity don't mix.

But apparently, the head of the air board, Mary Nichols, thinks they can co-exist profitably. A story on KQED's California Report today quoted her as saying the board's plan seizes on "an opportunity to actually improve the management of forested land and to make a contribution to the health of the forests and the atmosphere." (Speaking of the atmosphere, the board's "Improved Forest Management" protocol appears to exclude the effect of running heavy machinery as part of the overall emissions cost of "improvement" projects.)

Mark Schapiro, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Journalism in Berkeley, is publishing a new story on the board's forest plans this week. On The California Report today, he summarized the controversy over the air board's work this way: "What the protocol does not do is take further measures to preserve forests, and that's where you have the central tension right now: having as a goal purely the storage of more carbon in trees versus the idea of preserving the biodiversity and the larger ecological function of forests."