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Vatican seeks to become carbon neutral

by International Herald Tribune Wednesday, Sep. 05, 2007 at 6:45 AM

TISZAKESZI, Hungary: This summer the cardinals at the Vatican accepted an unusual donation from a Hungarian start-up called Klimafa: The company said it would plant trees to restore an ancient forest on a denuded island by the Tizsa River to offset the Vatican's carbon emissions.

Vatican agrees to a carbon offset scheme
By Elisabeth Rosenthal

Monday, September 3, 2007

The young trees, on a 15-hectare, or 37-acre, tract of land that will be renamed the "Vatican Climate Forest" will in theory absorb as much carbon dioxide as the Vatican makes through its various activities in 2007: driving cars, heating offices, lighting St. Peters Basilica at night.

In so doing, the Vatican announced, it would become the world's first carbon-neutral state.

"As the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, recently stated, the international community needs to respect and encourage a 'green culture,' " said Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who took part in a ceremony marking the event at the Vatican. "The Book of Genesis tell us of a beginning in which God placed man as guardian over the earth to make it fruitful."

In many respects, the scheme seems like a win-win-win proposition.

The Vatican, which has recently made an effort to go green on its own by installing solar panels, sought to set an example by offsetting its carbon emissions.

Hungary, whose government scientists are consulting on the project, will take over large swaths of environmentally degraded, abandoned land restored as a native forest. That will have a beneficial effect on the climate there, and provide jobs in a economically depressed area, as well.

Klimafa, an 18-month-old company, gets the Vatican's seal of approval and a lot of free publicity for its first project. In addition to the Vatican's 15 hectares, several European governments as well as Dell, the computer maker, have purchased carbon offsets, which will be backed by tree planting on the 225-hectare island.

"It seems so obvious, but no one was doing it," said David Gazdag, a former medical doctor who brokered the project, with backing from his San Francisco parent company, Planktos International.

But creating and selling carbon "offsets" or "credits" is still a novel concept for both business and science, and many controversies remain. The calculation for tree planting in particular is complicated.

Planting forests is only "a partial solution, and a temporary one," said Laszlo Galhidy, forestry officer for the environmental group WWF Hungary, although he praised the project as a useful step.

Young forests - dominated by growing trees - soak up lots of carbon dioxide, but once the forests mature, they absorb far less, he said.

Also, "carbon credits" are not a hard currency like a euro or a Hungarian forint, but something far more nebulous, like a stock market future. There is no scientific system for predicting the exact carbon absorbing capacity of a project like the Vatican Forest, whose trajectory depends on rainfall, temperature and how fast trees grow.

Finally, man increases his polluting activities faster than he can offset them.

"Planting forests will only compensate for a small fraction of emissions, even if you cover all of Hungary in young trees," Galhidy said.

Gazdag acknowledges that carbon offsetting is not an exact science. "People have only been thinking about offsetting for about 10 years," he said.

But he and others say that market mechanisms created by the Kyoto Protocol and the European Union at least force polluters to pay in some form for the emissions they create.

Kyoto and the European Union's Cap and Trade scheme set emissions targets for countries or large companies. Those that exceed their allowances - emitting too much carbon - need to purchase "carbon credits" from countries or companies that do not need their allotment or from companies like Klimafa that create credits through green projects like planting trees.

On the EU market, carbon credits are trading at about €21, or $28; one credit counters one ton of emitted carbon dioxide. Klimafa says its donation to the Vatican is worth about €100,000.

Some U.S. companies, like Dell, voluntarily purchase credits as a sign of their environmental commitment even though there is currently no U.S. law that requires them to do so.

Within Europe, the EU scheme allows for a much needed transfer of money from the more developed countries of Western Europe to the new economies of the East. Countries and companies in the West tend to exceed their allowance, whereas Eastern countries tend to have excess credits to sell since so many polluting Communist-era factories have been shut.

Also, many of the former Eastern Bloc countries had to decommission farmland to join the European Union in accordance with EU agricultural policy. In Hungary, as in other new member states, huge tracts of marginal fields have been repurchased by the government from farmers and are readily available for reforesting.

The island that will host Klimafa's first eco-restoration project, originally called "Forest Island," was cleared in the Middle Ages, though it is on a flood plain and has always been risky to farm.

Klimafa is also negotiating for nine more projects in Hungary as well as others in Bulgaria and Romania.

The island is now a mix of tangled weeds, wetlands, a lake and a few fields of corn that farmers are planting illegally even though they no longer own the land. Much of the island is a jumble of goldenrod and amorpha fruticosa - a tree-like weed that grows like wildfire.

The plant "doesn't sequester much, and it is not stable since it has little biodiversity since it is mostly two or three species," said Gergely Torda, a plant biologist from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who is consulting on the project. "It is deforested enough that you pretty much have to start from scratch to restore the native forest."

He scans the land as a blank canvas, describing plans for what will be planted where.

Later this year, Klimafa will begin clearing the weeds, using local labor, and then start environmentally sensitive planting of saplings that are native and will thrive in the local environment. These include willows, beeches, ash, certain poplars and oaks. The growing forest will absorb 10 times the carbon that the land currently absorbs, and will be self-sustaining, Torda said.

Klimafa has been given the right to restore the land by the Bukk National Park, which owns it; costs will be covered by carbon credit purchases.

Torda notes that it will take 50 to 150 years to produce a mature forest. Once that happens it will be less effective, since mature forests contain decaying trees that release CO2, as well as growing trees that absorb it. Also, there are pitfalls that will need to be avoided. Too much plowing, for example, releases carbon from the soil, which reduces the beneficial effect.

In some carbon credit projects, for example in Indonesia, the draining and plowing of peatland to make way for tree planting released so much carbon (peat is rich in the element) that it canceled the effect of the later planting of palm trees, according to Wetlands International. But the soil on the Hungarian island now is dry and low in carbon.

The world of carbon credits is filled with untested projects. For example, Planktos, Klimafa's San Francisco-based parent company, plans to seed an area in the Pacific with iron to stimulate the growth of carbon-eating algae.

After the Vatican agreement was announced, Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca Alameda, an official at the Vatican's Council for Culture, told the Catholic News Service that buying credits was like doing penance: "One can emit less CO2 by not using heating and not driving a car or one can do penance by intervening to offset emissions, in this case by planting trees," he said.

But some critics derided the Vatican for planting trees rather than trying to rein in energy use in Rome. The Vatican did not have to pay anything for the Klimafa program, although the donation is only for 2007, and does not cover air travel.

Just last week, the Vatican began sponsoring low-cost flights for pilgrims from Rome to holy sites like Lourdes ("More convenient than a 22-hour train ride!" one priest said on Italian television.) Plane travel is hugely polluting.

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