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These trees made Florida's Hillsborough County over $1 million for their climate benefits. Is it legit?

Emily L. Mahoney, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

PLANT CITY, Fla. — The preserve stretches for thousands of acres, its teeming wetlands alternating with forests where ultra-straight lumber pines grow side-by-side with their lusher, native cousins.

At Hillsborough County’s Lower Green Swamp, officials are working to restore the land from cow pastures and a former pine plantation back to its natural state. The trees in the preserve also offer up something else: They’re a source of more than $1 million in county revenue.

About 5,200 acres of the preserve is enrolled in a “carbon bank” program that cashes in on how much carbon the trees are estimated to capture.

It’s part of a global billion-dollar industry, where each ton of carbon that trees remove from the atmosphere can be bought by companies wanting to offset their pollution. Each ton is represented by one carbon “credit,” which the buyers then subtract from their own emissions ledgers. The companies may buy the credits for mandatory reasons, like complying with government emissions ceilings, or voluntarily to improve their public image on environmental issues.

Hillsborough officials said the local program is a win-win for taxpayers and the environment. A small number of carbon credit registries, including the American Carbon Registry, set rules for the projects and issue credits if they meet those standards.

“All the money that is generated out of this carbon bank goes straight back to restoration in the Lower Green Swamp preserve,” said Ross Dickerson, environmental lands manager for the county.

 

But while it sounds like a straightforward tradeoff between emissions and the trees that capture them, carbon credits have come under scientific scrutiny. The accounting is frequently abused or inaccurate, experts say, and these projects can do more harm than good in the fight against climate change.

The evidence has been “pretty unequivocal” in terms of the impact of carbon credit programs like the one in use at the Lower Green Swamp, said Danny Cullenward, a senior fellow with the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and the vice chairperson of California’s Independent Emissions Market Advisory Committee.

“The atmosphere is being screwed over by these deals,” he said.

How carbon credits work

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