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Trees Could Grow Cash for DuPage

Budget constraints over the last few years might have inspired a few government officials to dream of ways to grow money on trees. But now a leading conservation group is pushing an innovative way to raise money by growing trees -- and DuPage County is taking it seriously.

Feb. 3--Budget constraints over the last few years might have inspired a few government officials to dream of ways to grow money on trees. But now a leading conservation group is pushing an innovative way to raise money by growing trees -- and DuPage County is taking it seriously.

Last month, top county planning, environmental and Forest Preserve District officials attended a summit by the Conservation Foundation on the emerging market for trading carbon emissions credits.

They say they are beginning to examine whether DuPage -- with its vast holdings of forest and prairie land--could benefit from joining the Chicago Climate Exchange, a pilot program intended to compensate participants who take positive steps toward offsetting the impact of greenhouse gases believed to be causing global warming.

"The goal here is clean air, not to make money," said Brook McDonald, the Naperville-based Conservation Foundation's president and chief executive. "If we have to use financial incentives to do that, so what? Who cares? We judge on the outcomes, not the motivations."

"In the end, the net gain to the environment benefits all of us," DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom told about 200 people, including municipal officials and corporate representatives, at the summit at Benedictine University in Lisle.

The greenhouse effect is caused by gases such as carbon dioxide or methane that gather high in the atmosphere and block warmth generated on earth by the sun's rays from dissipating into space. That causes temperatures to rise around the world, scientists say. Greenhouse gases get into the atmosphere through natural processes, such as decomposition, respiration and volcanic eruptions, but humans have drastically sped up the process by burning carbon-based fossil fuels, such as gas.

Deforestation has worsened the problem by removing countless trees that had absorbed greenhouse gases as they grew, thereby "sequestering" carbon in a safe, natural place.

The Climate Exchange program works when organizations in the program buy and sell carbon "credits." They can earn those credits by reducing their collective greenhouse gas emissions beyond a target--say 4 percent over four years--by taking steps such as reducing their use of coal or driving vehicles that use cleaner-burning alternative fuels. They also can earn credits by planting trees or deep-rooted prairie grasses that are effective at sequestering carbon.

Participants that don't meet the targets are legally bound to buy credits from other organizations, which is where municipal bodies could stand to benefit.

The DuPage County Forest Preserve District, for example, owns and manages more than 24,000 acres. It also buys open space, such as former farmlands, and converts it back into natural prairie. The county also is a major landowner and potentially could earn revenue by planting along highway rights of way, thus creating long, skinny "carbon sinks."

"Get paid for the environmental service you provide," said Michael J. Walsh, Chicago Climate Exchange's senior vice president.

DuPage County and forest preserve officials say it is too early to say whether they'll join the program or to estimate how much money they could generate. They are currently determining the amount of emissions they produce and whether they are likely to end up ahead.

John Oldenburg, the Forest Preserve District's director of natural resources, is planning to present a report to the district board in six months, including some recommendations, estimates and potential pilot programs to get them started.

"The board is certainly interested in this, and believes that this is an opportunity to, in essence, accomplish our restoration and management goals and provide a funding source for that as well," he said.

But Oldenburg said the Forest Preserve District might be more interested if the market rate for a ton of carbon stored went up. Right now, it's trading at a little less than $2 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, while he believes the market could sustain prices closer to $13 a ton.

It takes a lot of trees to store a metric ton of carbon. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a tree removes about 50 pounds of carbon per year during photosynthesis, so it would take 44 to store a metric ton--although some species sequester more than others.

"The price right now is a beginning price, and certainly the district would be looking toward a better opportunity as far as pricing," Oldenburg said.

Since the program, the first of its kind to be voluntary, was launched 1 1/2 years ago, a wide range of organizations have joined--from corporations such as chemical-maker DuPont and Ford Motor Co., to groups that represent major landowners, such as International Paper, the Iowa Farm Bureau and the University of Oklahoma. The only other municipality so far is the City of Chicago.

Marcia Jimenez, commissioner of Chicago's Department of Environment, said the city had met the goal of cutting emissions 1 percent in its first year of participation in the exchange--largely through efforts to make public buildings more energy-efficient. But it had not surpassed the target, and no additional revenue had been raised for the city by earning credits, she said, nor was that the goal in coming years.

"We're not in it to play the market," she said. "We're into reducing the emissions and demonstrating that all urban areas can be a part of it."

McDonald said he made carbon sequestering the subject of the group's second annual summit to urge DuPage to take the lead, as it has with other environmental initiatives, such as its flood-control ordinance.

"Once, I think, the other counties see DuPage have some success at this, then it'll spread," he said.

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© 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.