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Pacific Northwest forest.

Three Washington forests are part of the biggest carbon credit purchase in U.S. history. Is that a good thing?

Western Washington has three urban forest sites included in the largest urban forest carbon credit purchase in U.S. history. What does that mean for the forests and for the environment?

Today, we’re heading to Issaquah and Sammamish. That's where, right at this moment, trees are busy absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen through photosynthesis.

They’re also storing carbon in their trunks. While trees everywhere fulfill this helpful function every day, these specific trees are growing in forest parcels owned by King County and the City of Issaquah. Thanks to a $1 milllion carbon credit purchase, announced by King County last Friday, those trees are sequestering carbon on behalf of a blockchain software company based in Delaware.

To help explain what all that means, we reached out to the King County Forest Carbon Program, and spoke with Program Manager Kathleen Farley Wolf. According to Wolf, the Forest Carbon Program identifies properties that, without their intervention or acquisition, would be developed or cut for commercial timber harvest.

Once those properties have been acquired, they can calculate the difference between the amount of carbon that would have been stored on that property with the trees being cut versus the amount that's stored when conserved. They then create carbon credits from that difference.

“We still own the land, and we still are in charge of the management of that land,” Wolf said. “So, when we create a carbon credit, it's a one-time sale of that credit to that buyer. But that buyer then doesn't have any say of overall management. We just have a commitment to keep that carbon sequestered and that carbon credit they bought, we have a commitment to make sure that it is valid and permanent.”

The three locations in Western Washington that were included in the deal are 33 acres from the City of Issaquah, 12 acres on the north side of Soaring Eagle Regional Park in Sammamish, and 2.6 acres of greenspace in Shoreline as part of the Mountains to Sound Greenway.

“City trees are a critical component to reverse and mitigate against the impacts of climate change," explained Jon Hoekstra, executive director of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. "We are excited about the opportunities carbon credits can provide as a new revenue source to support this important work.”

But these types of carbon credits are not without their critics. Emily Johnston from 350 Seattle joined the show to give a climate activist’s point of view.

“Sometimes people who hate offsets talk about ‘murder offsets.’ That a person could give money to a hospital to save some lives, while continuing to murder other people,” Johnston explained. “And that's not as far off the truth as we'd like it to be unfortunately, because using fossil fuels in ways that are nonessential, or using more of them than is necessary, is having deadly consequences all around the world. So, our top priority has to be stopping that essential use and not letting it continue.”

How does an organization make the calculation that it’s a good thing to preserve forests and green spaces, while at the same time tacitly allowing polluting companies to continue pollution without consequence?

Johnston said it comes down to "additionality."

“The question is, are these forests or these little patches of woods truly on the chopping block, where they're going to be clear-cut and developed sometime soon?" Johnston said. "And so, are we getting something that we were going to lose?”

She said another thing to think about is balance.

“Were they on the chopping block for a Walmart? Or were they on the chopping block for like transit-served dense housing?” Johnston asked. “The complexities of whether it's a climate good or not are much greater, because we need a lot more affordable housing in urban areas in King County.”

Another thing to consider is the types of carbon offsets there are. Do carbon offset credits trade the good of preserving forests and green spaces for the bad of prolonged carbon being pumped into the atmosphere?

Seth Zuckerman, executive director of Northwest Natural Resource Group, said it’s important to distinguish between “voluntary” and “compliance.”

“There are companies who want to make a voluntary contribution to offset the carbon emissions that are just part of their operations as they make the transition towards a more efficient and renewably powered economy. And so they're doing this out of goodwill,” Zuckerman explained.

“I think where your question really touches more of a nerve is when these carbon credits are sold into a compliance market where there is a regulatory obligation for companies to not emit more than X amount of carbon. And when they make use of carbon offsets like this, to in effect, buy the right to emit a little bit more carbon than they might otherwise be allowed to do, then you have to be really meticulous about whether those carbon offsets are measurable, verifiable real and truly additional to what would happen otherwise.”

Regen Network is the company that purchased the credits in the blockbuster deal that included urban forests in Western Washington. When asked if they had a response to criticism that has been levied by environmental groups against this sort of offset, Regen Network’s Sarah Baxendell sent this response: “Regen Network is a community-owned registry standard dedicated to empowering ecological stewards and restoring ecology as a response to climate change.

"This criticism aptly applies to proof-of-work blockchains, which use an energy intensive computational mining process (ex: bitcoin).

"However, Regen Network is a proof-of-stake blockchain, where users confirm data and ensure security through a process of collateral staking with validators. This process is significantly less energy intensive than proof-of-work blockchains. Regen Network collected validator data in 2022 and the protocol had an estimated carbon footprint of 565 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, unlike Bitcoin, which has an estimated annual carbon footprint of 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.”

Baxendell said credits from the Western Washington sale would be listed for sale online in the Regen Registry marketplace launching this summer. Those credits could be purchased by corporations or other organizations seeking "high-quality ecological impact," Baxendell wrote.

“Regen Registry is a blockchain-native decentralized platform for the origination, listing and exchange of high-quality ecological assets," she explained. "Sellers can define, manage, mint, and sell digital carbon in the on-chain registry system. Buyers can purchase, retire, transfer, and bundle digital carbon on the blockchain.”

Let us know what you think about carbon offset credits. Does the good of the money going back into ecological preservation outweigh the bad of companies using offsets in lieu of reducing their overall emissions? Join the conversation at kuow.org/soundside.