This past February marked the 10th consecutive month in which the average global temperature set a record for warmth. Scientists are warning that the current rate of warming is unprecedented in the known history of our planet. As our globe continues to warm, it is becoming increasingly clear to even the most entrenched skeptics that we have a responsibility to address the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.
When a corporation, institution, individual, or other entity wishes to balance their carbon emissions, they often first turn towards efficiency measures. Light bulbs are changed, insulation is installed, packaging is reduced, transportation is addressed, and other activities are pursued that limit energy use and reduce carbon emissions. Even the most aggressive investments into energy efficiency however will not yield carbon neutrality. The one option to balance remaining carbon emissions is the pursuit of carbon offset projects.
The World Bank has stated that carbon is the world’s fastest growing commodities market, with an annual value approaching $200 billion. These carbon offsets come in various forms. Most common are credits that are given for renewable energy projects (solar, wind, geothermal, etc), improved forest management (managing forests in a manner that allows them to store more carbon than the norm), credits for avoided deforestation or degradation (the UN’s REDD mechanism allots credits to countries that limit deforestation beyond historical averages) and reforestation.
Fraud in the carbon market
A closer look at the inner workings of these strategies, however, exposes some uncomfortable realities. Horror stories of massive fraud are easy to find on the internet and exist across all sectors of the carbon market. Due to lax regulations and the difficulties in monitoring, various bad actors have gamed the system to issue millions upon millions of fraudulent carbon credits. An investigation conducted by INTERPOL in 2011 revealed that “up to 90% of all carbon trading in some countries was a result of fraudulent activities. This fraud was estimated to have resulted in the losses to several governments of around 5 billion euros in just over 18 months.”
These examples have soured many individuals, policy makers, corporations, and institutions on the validity and efficacy of carbon trading and have hampered the global effort to combat climate change. These entities, already facing the burden to invest in sustainability, now face the added and unfortunate challenge to ensure that the carbon they are dealing with is in fact legitimate.
The Reforest The Tropics Difference
Reforest The Tropics recognizes this challenge to buyers, and has committed to provide offsets of the highest quality and of the greatest transparency than any available. RTT has both its methodology and its calculations for its carbon capture audited by an independent forestry consultant every two years. RTT also offers Gold Standard verification of its carbon as required by its partners. Gold Standard carbon undergoes rigorous examination to ensure that it is accurately measured and reported.
Another mechanism to ensure carbon transparency is the individualized manner in which we operate. RTT tailors each project to a specific sponsor. Rather than the purchase of ‘pooled’ carbon from a large and ambiguous forest, RTT plants specifically for each sponsor. When a new forest is planted, the sponsor receives the GPS coordinates for the forest plot, and a large sign is installed to identify the sponsor and the details of the project. RTT sends photos and reports to each partner with the idea that sustainability initiatives will be most successful if emitters have an intimate connection to their project. Sponsors are even encouraged to visit their plots in order to experience their sustainability efforts firsthand. No other program offers this level of transparency for the carbon it captures.
The explosive growth of the carbon market is testament to the responsibility that buyers feel towards our environment. Although some will continue to seek the cheapest carbon credits available, they are risking an outcome that amounts to little more than empty bragging rights. Buyers that are seeking to make a true difference in the climate change equation are encouraged to seek carbon credits that they can see, measure, and touch with their own hands. RTT is proud to provide this option.
– Greg Powell, RTT Director
When speaking with various stakeholders, we at Reforest The Tropics, often find ourselves talking about the “quality” of different carbon offsets. We maintain that all sustainability efforts are important and worthwhile, however the carbon offsets generated from tropical reforestation projects carry a special significance. Only carbon credits that are created from NEW forests are taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Offsets that are created through energy efficiency programs (think wind, solar, etc) or conservation programs (i.e. avoided deforestation, improved forest management) are only addressing the small yellow circle seen above. Of course, we need to shrink that circle to the extent that is possible, but we must not do so at the expense of ignoring the centuries of excess CO2 that has accumulated (represented by the checkered arc) in the atmosphere. This distinction is extremely important when we view the proportions of the carbon problem that we must tackle.
THERE IS HOPE… The diagram on the left demonstrates the importance of carbon extraction strategies. The planet shares the collective goal and responsibility to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels to approximately 745 Gt CO2 (or 350 parts per million). Currently, the atmosphere contains approximately 850 Gt (or 400 parts per million). Most climate change strategies are currently focusing on limiting the 10 Gt CO2 that are being emitted each year. Although carbon emissions reduction is very important, this graphic illustrates the relatively small impact these efforts have on the climate equation. Due to the longevity of CO2 in the atmosphere (500-800 years), we will never reach our sustainability goals without technologies that EXTRACT CO2 from the atmosphere. Tropical reforestation is our best hope to pull CO2 from the atmosphere and store it for the long term in trees, soil, and wood products. After 50 years of research, RTT models are extracting an average of 25 metric tons per hectare per year. Careful species selection and underplanting of shade tolerant species allows RTT forests to remain productive as carbon capturing tools for over 100 years. Our data indicates that RTT forests can accumulate over 2500 metric tons per hectare within 100 years. Some models have achieved this in only 50 years. Out of the estimated 185 million hectares of deforested land that is ideal for reforestation, we only need 40 million hectares using the RTT model.
Greg Powell, Director, RTT
Reforestation of our tropical zones is the most effective, inexpensive, and technologically feasible method to arrest the acceleration of atmospheric CO2. This is our primary focus at RTT. We are developing forestry models that are capturing more CO2 per hectare than some science and forestry professionals even thought possible. And we are doing so in a manner that is attractive for owners of degraded land. This fact alone carries important implications for our future climate, as our model is overcoming the historic conundrum of incentivizing landowners to participate in reforestation. In addition to the primary goal of carbon sequestration, there are a number of benefits that tropical reforestation offers. This month, we are focusing on habitat creation. RTT forests play host to numerous species of mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian, and insect. By utilizing a mixed-species model instead of traditional monocultures, RTT is enhancing flora diversity in a way that results in a healthy biome. It stands to reason that a variety of plant life will invite more wildlife,
however the team at RTT is continually surprised at the habitat we are creating. Nearly all small mammals found in Costa Rica have been witnessed in RTT forests. More exciting is the evidence of some of Costa Rica’s (and the world’s) more elusive species. We have seen tracks of various large cats, including jaguars, which are presumably entering forest plots to hunt for the myriad small animals that RTT forests host. We have also seen tracks, scat, and food leavings of the iconic tapir. We have even seen evidence of tapirs feeding on the deglupta—a naturalized species to Costa Rica that was first hybridized by RTT Scientist and Founder, Dr. Herster Barres. Another species that is listed on the endangered list is the Great Green Macaw. This magnificent bird is attracted to the seed of the almendro tree – a species found in multiple RTT plots. RTT is attempting to create the most holistic model possible while pursuing its goal to develop the most powerful carbon capturing model in the world. In order to encourage the propagation of wildlife, RTT routinely plants fruit and seed bearing species with the specific purpose of attracting fauna. Planting bananas, plantains, papayas, berries, and other fodder does little to improve carbon capture, however we recognize the importance in broadening the habitable zones for Costa Rica’s amazing wildlife. – Greg Powell,
Reforest The Tropics is proud this month to offer an essay by our friend and fellow tree advocate, Richard Higgins. Mr. Higgins is a writer, editor, and public speaker on Thoreau’s lifelong passion for trees. His book, Thoreau and the Language of Trees is due out next year. He is the editor of five books and the co-author of Portfolio Life. – Greg Powell, RTT Director
The discovery of the biochemistry and dynamics of the carbon cycle has made the work of Reforest the Tropics possible. Scientists know how much CO2 new trees absorb from the atmosphere, down to the quantities that different types of trees store in their roots, stems and leaves. While that science is impressive, it is helpful to remember that, long before the facts were in, wise people throughout history intuited the necessity, beneficence and saving qualities of trees.
One was Henry David Thoreau. The decimation of the New England landscape, which peaked about 1850, during his lifetime, angered him. Even the woods around his beloved Walden Pond were ravaged for fire wood during the unusually cold 1850s. “Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds!” he fumed. Thoreau hated losing woods that he knew, but his anger was the greater because he knew that without trees, nature would wither, and human life would as well. What we now know about trees makes Thoreau look clairvoyant. They were “rivers of sap and woody fiber” flowing “from the atmosphere and emptying into the earth,” he wrote. A century before nurse logs became a concept in forestry, Thoreau called pine trees “nurses” to the oak saplings that take root beneath them. He described trees as “fountains of water” and knew that their decomposition enriched the soil. He knew also knew, from the German botanist Kurt Sprengel, about the transpiration of leaves. “A thin column of smoke curls up from some invisible farmhouse,” Thoreau wrote “as silently and naturally as the vapor exhales from the leaves.” Before the term ecology was coined, Thoreau saw forests as whole landscapes that transcend any public or private boundaries. He urged that they be preserved as such. And despite the deforestation he witnessed, Thoreau had the foresight and faith in nature, to write that “one day they will be planted and nature reinstated to some extent.”
Thoreau also knew that trees were essential to the human spirit. “From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind,” he wrote in “Walking.” A town is saved, he said, “not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it.” Every tree “sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild,” and in such wildness “is the preservation of the world.” Thoreau was not only the wise person to see these things. “Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them,” the French diplomat Chateaubriand wrote in 1820. “What we are doing to the forests of the world,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi, “is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” And a biblical author didn’t need to know about stomatal pores and chloroplasts to write, in Revelations 22.2, “The leaves of the trees are for the healing of nations.” Looked at this way, scientists should see it as an honor to provide the empirical evidence that these people were right. It’s even a greater honor to turn their words into action, which is just what Reforest the Tropics is doing.
Richard may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reforest The Tropics’ forests are the most powerful carbon absorbing forest models ever developed. This came as a result of over 50 years of tropical forest research experience and refined under the development of a United Nations carbon sequestration program, the only one of its kind known to us in the Americas.
One of the biggest advantages to our program is that it is NOT a typical forestry offset project. Unlike other offset programs, RTT generates NEW CARBON CAPTURES with newly planted forests, not preservation of existing forests and not the sale of carbon that has already been captured. Only with newly planted tropical forests do we have a chance of absorbing pre -existing atmospheric CO2 that will continue to heat up the Earth even if today we stopped emitting all CO2 from all current sources.
These forests not only absorb 10 times more carbon dioxide than the temperate zone forests, but actually 4 times more than the average rainforest itself…even after thinning the forest to provide income for the farmer.
The enhanced productivity of these forest plantations has resulted in a financial model that makes this land use competitive with other land uses. Our models are demonstrating that a farmer can make as much money, or more, planting trees as he can raising cattle on the same land. This can ensure the sustainability of tropical forests. Increasingly, scientists are pointing to replanting our tropical lands as the most important aspect of our survival as a human population.
One the most important developments at Reforest The Tropics recently was a collaboration with the City of Gloucester, MA, to offset the carbon emissions of the entire school system using trees planted in Costa Rican forests. That’s six schools with 3000 students representing 44.2% of the municipality’s CO2 emissions.
The program really gained traction when RTT offered to provide guidance to implement a revolutionary educational initiative to use the school’s forest as a teaching platform for a climate change curriculum in grades K thru 12.
The classroom will be interactively connected to RTT foresters and the supporting community eco-culture in Costa Rica. So in three years, there will be enough trees planted to offset the entire school system’s carbon emissions. An advisory panel to the City came to the conclusion that using the RTT forest model was the most cost effective way to supplement it’s long term carbon neutrality goals. RTT has installed at least 14 pilot programs in southern Connecticut schools in the past 15 years, but the City of Gloucester is the first school system in the United States to bring this dual planting/teaching initiative to scale in a community’s goal to become carbon neutral.
The ultimate objective of the program is to instill emissions ownership responsibility in the children by having the schools teach by example. Psychologists tell us that our children almost certainly will follow our example, rather than us telling them what to do and how to behave.
So we can’t expect our children to be carbon balanced in their lives if we don’t set the example ourselves. That’s why the schools setting a goal to be 100% carbon balanced is so critical to the way our children will look at their own responsibility to address the huge sustainability decisions that will face them when they join the workplace as adults.
This combined rainforest offset/teaching program has the power to be the most influential movement on this planet to create a sea-change in the way our youth will feel and act to benefit global sustainability.
RTT Board Chair
Climate change will be the defining issue faced by the next generation of leaders. Having failed to adequately address centuries of accelerating CO2 emissions, we now share the collective responsibility to equip the next generation with the tools they will need to confront this massive challenge.
For many years, Reforest The Tropics has been delivering environmental education programs to students of all ages both in the United States and Costa Rica. Programs and lectures have included primary schools, middle schools, high schools, universities, and technical schools. In Costa Rica, RTT’s mixed species forests serve as living classrooms in which students, teachers and professionals of forestry and other earth sciences have learned about RTTs’ unique reforestation model. Due to the generosity of our partnering farmers, thousands of visitors from a number of different countries have benefited from these programs.
In the United States, education programs are typically based in the classroom, focusing on issues surrounding climate change and the science of forestry. Lessons are enriched with many photos and videos of RTT forests. RTT is now developing an even more interactive program in which students will have the opportunity to virtually tour their own forests via a web-link. Students will be able to ask questions directly to RTT foresters in Costa Rica in real time!
To date, RTT has planted carbon balancing forests for thirteen schools. These forests serve as a source of pride to schools, offer a unique learning opportunity, and foster a sense of responsibility and ownership of carbon emissions among the student body.
Moving forward, RTT intends to plant enough new forests to fully balance the emissions of participating schools and even entire school districts. RTT will work with administrators to calculate the emissions for the schools. Schools will then sign a vision statement which voices their commitment to eventually achieve 100% carbon neutrality. We will begin planting forests that will capture enough carbon dioxide each year to completely offset their emissions.
Photo Above: FUNDED BY A WAL-MART EDUCATIONAL GRANT, MS. DESIREE DERIX, A SCIENCE TEACHER FROM WESTERLY MIDDLE SCHOOL MEASURES A TREE IN A CARBON-OFFSET FOREST IN COSTA RICA.
Ms. Derix is the Head of the Science Department in the Westerly, RI Middle School. In order to expand the school’s capacity to teach about climate change, Reforest The Tropics and a major donor, The Superior Nut Co., have teamed together with the local Wal-Mart store and the Westerly Rotary Club to develop a school program that involves teacher training in the field. Ms. Derix spent a week in Costa Rica, training in forests, meeting farmers and understanding the importance and opportunity offered by reforesting farm pastures in the tropics. This environmental education program lasts for an initial 3 years and includes not only teacher training, but also sessions of student teaching by RTT staff, an annual CO2-emissions inventory of their school done by students, and the establishment of a 2 ½- acre carbon-offset forest for the school. Also in this photo, left, is Lauren Hintlian, RTT co-director and director of sustainability for The Superior Nut Co. In the blue hat is an independent forest consultant from Interforest who periodically reviews the RTT program and its measurements. Photo: March 21, 2013 in the Las Delicias Farm in Costa Rica. This is a UNFCCC-AIJ sanctioned program approved by the US and Costa Rican governments in 1995.
RTT believes that through active participation in a realworld solution, students will be left with a sense of empowerment and hopefulness in order to effectively confront this issue throughout their lives. Indeed, the world is counting on them to do so.
One of the research goals of Reforest the Tropics is to develop forests with a 100+ year capacity for CO2 capture and storage. Research began in the 1960s by our staff who tested 99 tree species for farm forests. One of the more interesting species was Araucaria hunsteinii, or the “Klinkii Pine” from Papua New Guinea. This species has proven to be an ideal candidate for inclusion in mixed-species plantations. It is noninvasive, grows to tremendous sizes, produces high quality timber, shows promise as a shade tolerant species that can be planted beneath existing canopies, and it coexists well with other species in RTT mixtures. The tallest Klinkii ever formally measured was 273 feet in height and over 6 feet in diameter. This gives the tree a special potential, namely of being able to store CO2 in the form of wood in a live forest stand for a very long time.
Klinkii is now included in virtually all of RTT’s mixed-species designs. RTT’s approach is to develop and test mixed-species models, which reduce the risks of disease and pest attacks associated with traditional monocultures. They also enhance biodiversity, create habitat for a variety of fauna, and have been shown to be more productive than monocultures in their ability to fix CO2.
– Dr. Herster Barres, RTT Director of Research
Reforest The Tropics is proud to announce the hiring of a new full-time forester in Costa Rica. Victor Martinez, a recent graduate from the Costa Rica Institute of Technology, completed his coursework in forestry science in the spring of 2014 and later volunteered with RTT to complete his thesis work. Victor’s thesis will provide valuable insight into the accumulation of carbon in the forest stand and soil as degraded lands are converted to RTT forests. Victor comes highly recommended from his forestry professors. After he impressed RTT staff with both his general forestry knowledge and his understanding of our program goals, RTT decided to hire him to assist our longtime forester, Rolando Comacho. Victor and Rolando will continue to diligently manage RTT forests, train the staff of our local partners, monitor and measure forest Victor (center) celebrates the defense of his thesis growth, and respond to any needs in our Costa Rica operations. Victor is excited to lend his expertise to help balance CO2 accounts for emitters throughout the world.
– Greg Powell, RTT Director
A historical challenge with reforestation has been convincing
local landowners to participate. Since most degraded land is
held in private hands, programs must incentivize the owners of
that land to reforest. RTT has generated landowner interest by
working towards making forestry economically competitive
with other land-use options. RTT mixtures are configured to
capture large quantities of CO2, however, more importantly,
the forests are also designed to keep that CO2 stored away
for the long term by paying attention to local needs.
RTT has experimented with the inclusion of mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) in its mixtures
for decades. Although mahogany does not grow as fast as some other species in the RTT
matrix, it offers a unique advantage by adding to the overall sustainability of the program. The
presence of mahogany, a coveted species after centuries of exploitation, inherently increases
the value of the program to landowners. The increased value of the program is translated into
more attention and management by the landowners, which leads to a more sustainable program.
Mahogany is rarely incorporated into forest plantations due to its susceptibility to attack from
the shootborer (Hypsipyla grandella), a pest that damages the growth and form of the species.
Through trial and error, RTT developed a treatment protocol that protects the trees from attack
and allows for their inclusion as a complementary species to the other trees that excel at carbon
capture and storage. Our research continues…
Herster Barres, Director of Research