May 12, 2021
Community Voices / Local team launches innovative approach to help curb climate change
Allison Roberts with reporting by Kiahna White-Alcain

Acres of trees represent the promise of an innovative new approach to helping to curb climate change. Conceived by professors at Western Washington University, the idea for carbon conservation trusts borrows from the land trust model and could work in forested or other environments across the globe. (Allison Roberts photo © 2021)

May 12, 2021
Community Voices / Local team launches innovative approach to help curb climate change
Allison Roberts with reporting by Kiahna White-Alcain

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

We hear a lot about the evils of carbon. However, carbon got its evil reputation because of what humans do with it. We dig it, pump it, burn it and toss it into our atmosphere. Our oceans, trees and soils are doing their best to take it up, but there is just too much of it in places where it shouldn’t be. Figuring out what to do with excess carbon is the most urgent challenge of our time. 

Earth’s systems operate in delicate balance. Too much carbon, like too much sugar in the body, wreaks havoc on systems, destabilizing them as they try to cope. Excess carbon in the atmosphere is trapping heat and accelerating climate change. That excess heat destabilizes global climate systems such as the jet stream and ocean currents. 

Sound bad? Well, it is. Instead of a steady racetrack of air flowing around the polar regions, the jet stream has developed a periodic wobble that acts something like a teeter-totter, sending frigid air plunging south to Texas and pumping warm, glacier-melting air into the Arctic. This type of unpredictability is one of the many faces of climate change. In our region, climate change can take the form of overtopped dikes during winter storms that inundate farmland, homes underwater during more frequent rainstorms, or damaged restaurants and roads when king tides and storm surges coincide, as in December 2018 in Birch Bay.

Inspired model

Two professors at Western Washington University with a team of graduate fellows, student interns and sustainability professionals are working on one solution to climate change. (With climate change, we need a whole army of solutions!) 

In January 2020, Steve Hollenhorst and Howard Sharfstein, professors at the Huxley College of the Environment at Western, asked, “What if we could protect land, cultivate that land for its carbon storage capacity and harness the power of capital markets to pay for it? And, what if this local solution could be translated to other places around the world?” 

As the founder of the West Virginia Land Trust, Hollenhorst found inspiration for the idea of a Carbon Conservation Trust (CCT) modeled after the land trust movement. Sharfstein brought complementary legal and business expertise to their concept, from his career at Kimberly Clark Corporation. 

During a May 6 presentation of the Huxley Speaker Series, Hollenhorst described how a CCT — applying the easement concept used in land trusts to carbon — could work; Sharfstein explained the legal aspects.

Just like land trusts purchase conservation easements from private property owners, the CCT would purchase easements from willing landowners to protect the carbon resources on and under the land. Hollenhorst pointed to the success of the land trust model: “There are 1,600 land trusts in the U.S. protecting 56 million acres of land — equal to the size of Minnesota — which amounts to nearly 18% of all private land in this country!”

These easements would be voluntary agreements that permanently limit the uses of the land in order to protect its conservation value. Protected land provides a service by storing excess carbon. Without buying the land, a CCT acquires the ability to store carbon on property they don’t own. This gives the landowner income in the form of carbon credits without selling the land but taking on the responsibility to retain and protect the carbon asset. 

The CCT as a governing body would hold the easement in perpetuity and monitor compliance of the carbon storage in that land, Sharfstein said. The CCT would verify that the land is indeed storing carbon and at what rate, and would determine the amount of carbon credit embodied in that land. Legal agreements would be signed with the landowners who retain ownership of the land but have made a commitment to not convert it to a carbon-emitting asset. 

Market power, green jobs

Here’s where the power of markets comes in. CCTs may be public/private partnerships, business sponsorships or multistakeholder alliances. Businesses or governments willing to make a payment in exchange for the land’s ability to store carbon could buy carbon offsets from landowners. For instance, the land could be managed as rich, productive timber with practices including delayed forest harvests, no-till farming, biochar use and/or production, and value-added timber products for homes and buildings. It could be undeveloped land not under cultivation where trees could be planted, or land farmed with a commitment to restorative management practices. 

“In addition to preventing the production of carbon into our atmosphere, we’re at a time where we can harness the resources of workforce development programs to create a whole generation of green jobs and sustainable financing mechanisms,” Hollenhorst pointed out. The team envision CCTs that would deploy trained workforces of carbon protectors (CPs) to engage, educate and recruit landowners into the process. CPs could work inhouse for a carbon trust, provide services independently under contract or on a fee basis or serve as consultants providing technical assistance to carbon trust stakeholders. 

With nonprofit status now secured and the legal aspects developed by Sharfstein, the CCT is ready to move forward. The next step is to pilot the concept here in Whatcom County as the Kulshan Carbon Trust (KCT). Sharfstein is confident that “once a pilot carbon trust is successful in Whatcom County, CCTs could be created anywhere.”

Younger generation in the lead

Because “we see the climate movement led by young people,” Hollenhorst said, the team made college student involvement a key part of the CCT development process. Students are very engaged on the issue of climate change; after all, the future is theirs. “They realize that we need to do more than just worry about this, we need to find solutions,” he said.

Jessa Clark of Peak Sustainability Group joined the team as organizational director in August 2020.  The recent graduate of Stanford University and Sehome High School alumna is excited about the potential to test the model here in Whatcom County. “The KCT could bring organizations, businesses and government together to implement natural climate solutions,” Clark said. “A variety of solutions must be implemented quickly. Our climate is changing, and the quality of life for every living thing on the planet depends on our actions today.”

Two graduate fellows from Bellingham also are working on the project: Emily Pittis, University of Montana, and Dana Ringler, George Washington University, are writing grants, building a business plan and creating outreach material. The CCT website is under development with a target release date in June. 

The team sees that the time is ripe for a paradigm shift on how we use our land and how we see carbon. Hollenhorst points out, “When you think of carbon and carbon dioxide, does it evoke positive images in your mind? No, it seems dark and gloomy. I want people to see how valuable carbon is.”

Just imagine, he said, “a future where carbon is stockpiled with the same fervor reserved for finding gold. We can’t wait around for political consensus on climate change.” The team agrees that the situation is urgent, he said. “We must act, and use as many solutions as we can to address climate change and the risk it brings to the quality of life that we enjoy here in Whatcom County – and bring a proven concept to the rest of the world.”

— Commentary by Allison Roberts with reporting by Kiahna White-Alcain

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