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An ERA worker plants a seedling. The firm is helping the City of Langley, B.C., to restore woodlands logged more than a century ago. (ERA)
An ERA worker plants a seedling. The firm is helping the City of Langley, B.C., to restore woodlands logged more than a century ago. (ERA)

Ecology

Firm helping to restore degraded forests Add to ...

Three years ago, Langley Mayor Peter Fassbender started looking for ways to reduce the British Columbia city's carbon footprint. Some of those involved reducing energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions from corporate operations.

But, Mr. Fassbender said, "we had areas of park and public lands along our flood plain where there was the potential to make a positive impact and enhance what we already had."

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Logged more than a century ago, those areas had been invaded by species such as alder, Himalayan blackberry and English ivy that, as Mr. Fassbender described it, "didn't necessarily have a positive footprint."

He decided to investigate a Vancouver-based company called ERA Carbon Offsets Ltd. that was replanting degraded woodlands across the Fraser River in the town of Maple Ridge with long-living trees more in tune with the region's traditional forest habitat.

"What we basically saw was that their program made sense for the community," Mr. Fassbender said.

For company CEO Robert Falls, ERA offers communities a win-win situation. "We say, look, we'll fix up your forest ecosystem," he said. "We will do absolutely everything. We'll take out the invasive species. We will plant what should be there, according to a prescription that's written by an ecologist, and then we maintain it until it is what we call 'free to grow.' "

In British Columbia's Lower Mainland, that takes about seven or eight years, he added. By then, the trees will have reached a height where their canopies can shade out more invasive species.

ERA doesn't charge for the reforestation work. Its profits come from selling the resulting carbon offsets in a continually expanding international marketplace.

Each tonne of CO2 either avoided or removed from the atmosphere counts as one carbon offset. These are then sold to companies wanting to offset their greenhouse-gas emissions. Some are obliged by new European Union regulations to do so, while others, such as Mr. Fassbender, simply feel compelled to make a difference in the fight against global warming.

"It has finally become apparent to people that you can't accomplish this international policy objective of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 without the land base, without forests involved," Mr. Falls said. "They're the only thing that remove carbon from the atmosphere."

In 2004, the year he co-founded the company, the voluntary and compliance carbon offset markets were worth $727-million (U.S.). By last year, its staff having grown to 35 employees, half of them working in the field, that figure was $136-billion, Mr. Falls said.

As the market developed, however, some critics began voicing concern with how the amount of CO2 removed or avoided is calculated, pointing out potential problems such as fires, insect infestations or even logging in newly planted forests. But together with the market expansion, standards for verifying offsets have been sharpened.

"The first really strong standard to come out was the ISO 14064-2," Mr. Falls said. With that, he added, "there is no over-estimation. A calculation is made, that is peer reviewed, and we take away 20 per cent of the carbon benefits as a buffer, in case something does go wrong - and that's based on a risk assessment done by a third party."

ERA registers their metric tonnage of carbon offsets internationally "so people can see the paper trail as we produce the tonnes," he said. "It really comes down to our clients, as to what they want, what they're comfortable with."

Those clients include large firms such as Shell Canada and German energy giant, HSE-Entega, along with smaller companies such as Rolling Stone magazine and Vancouver Film Studios.

ERA went public in 2008 and while its stock price took a battering during the recession, the company won a vote of confidence last February when an Entega subsidiary, Forest Carbon Group AG, bought a 29.9 per cent stake for $5.5-million (Cdn.). According to analysts, FCG is anticipating increased demand for forestry offsets among German voluntary buyers.

Having generated 900,000 tonnes of carbon offsets to date, ERA is "selling everything we can produce," Mr. Falls said. Moreover, plans to establish so-called cap-and-trade mechanisms in the United States could boost both the demand for, and the price of, carbon credits. As some see a potential market value of $3-trillion by 2018, the company is expanding its inventory - and horizons - beyond Canadian municipalities and first nations to the developing world.

Last year, ERA inked a deal with Burundi to restore that country's Kibira National Park. Working on similar agreements with Congo, Rwanda and Madagascar, it wants to make sure that local communities are involved in the forest protection and restoration projects, Mr. Falls said. In some cases, that means planting alternative sources of wood for cooking.

"People have to feel ownership over these forests and incentivized to participate in their protection over time," he said.

In Langley, with 1,500 trees planted and an ultimate goal of 30,000, restoring forest habitat "is a long-term strategy," Mr. Fassbender said. "It also fits into raising public awareness, getting corporate involvement and making a difference in the environment. So it all works together."

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