Minneapolis carbon offset program could be one of the largest urban tree projects in the nation

Some Park Board commissioners are eager to greenlight a 25-year plan that could shift forestry costs from ordinary taxpayers to corporations. 

Minneapolis Parks and Recreation wants more money for trees.

Its eight-year property tax levy expired last year after raising more than $11 million to replace some 40,000 trees lost to emerald ash borers and storms at a one-to-one ratio. Now some Park Board commissioners are eager to greenlight a 25-year carbon-offset project that could shift forestry costs from individual taxpayers to corporations.

The idea is to sell credits to businesses to help offset their carbon emissions. The Park Board would use the money to expand the canopy — for every tree that dies, it plants two — and maintain it.

“We could go back to the taxpayers and ask them to pay but … it’s the only funding we’ve got right now, gang. It really is. And we need our trees desperately,” said Park Board President Meg Forney to fellow commissioners at a meeting last month.

If the Park Board votes at its next meeting to sell carbon credits to businesses looking to make up for greenhouse gas emissions, it would be the largest project under City Forest Credits, a nonprofit registry that issues urban tree carbon credits. But because the carbon offset market is relatively young, some commissioners have raised questions about the risk to the Park Board and potential greenwashing by polluters.

“How do we know that these carbon credits are going to be useful, or are we just creating a way for companies to pollute more by buying more trees?” asked Commissioner Billy Menz.

“There’s high level of skepticism around carbon offsets and what is a quality carbon credit,” said Commissioner Becky Alper. “I want to plant trees in Minneapolis and I love the idea of having more funding or funding that’s not property taxes, but are we losing our integrity by doing this?”

A strategic arrangement

The nearly 24,000 Park Board trees that make up the proposed project already have been planted the past three years. To get credits for the carbon they sequester — one credit equals one metric ton of emissions — the Park Board would legally commit to keeping those trees alive for 25 years, said Jeremy Barrick, parks assistant superintendent of environmental stewardship.

Growing trees has been a basic function of the Park Board since it was created more than a century ago, but it’s not a legal obligation, Barrick said. By entering into a binding contract to maintain, audit and guarantee the survival of specific trees over a set period of time, the board can make a case for meeting the “additionality” requirement of carbon credits — which defines greenhouse gas reductions as authentic if they wouldn’t have occurred without the sale of the credits.

Forrest Fleischman, University of Minnesota associate professor of environmental policy, believes the Park Board would have a hard time arguing that when it has a solid, 140-year reputation for maintaining trees regardless of any legal obligation. “I don’t see that as ‘additional,’ although in a legal sense, it might seem to be,” he said.

At the same time, urban forests provide the greatest direct benefits to people in the form of mitigating heat islands, intercepting storm water runoff, absorbing air pollution and regulating energy use.

“From that perspective, it’s great to find a funding source that will fund more urban trees because urban trees are just really beneficial,” Fleischman said.

As part of the Minneapolis carbon offset project, City Forest Credits would calculate the co-benefits of the trees and certify the credits. The conservancy nonprofit Green Minneapolis would be contracted to operate the project and sell those credits at $35 apiece to corporations.

Green Minneapolis Board Chair David Wilson said that while carbon credits can be bought for much less, businesses would be asked to pay a premium for Park Board carbon credits. In addition to the benefits of city trees, they are more costly to maintain due to stressors including road salt, tight growing conditions and development pressure.

“We are naturally — because of the pricing of these carbon credits — getting companies who are committed to much more environmental and community benefit than a company that’s just looking to greenwash their carbon emissions,” he said.

Wilson promised Green Minneapolis will sell carbon credits only to businesses that have publicly committed to also reducing emissions in their operations and announce those sales when they happen.

The Minneapolis investment firm Winslow Capital Management sponsored a carbon offset feasibility study by Green Minneapolis last year.

Chief Client Officer Megan Anderson said Winslow has purchased credits from the Fairburn wind project in South Dakota, as well as the Native American Hardwoods project in northern Minnesota, to reach net-zero status in 2018, but the company also would like to work with a local forestry program.

While the Park Board considers launching a carbon offset project, Fleischman warned that the public will find some corporate practices more concerning than others.

For example, selling offset credits to controversial businesses, such as pipeline builders, could result in political ramifications for the Park Board.

Growing shade

After accounting for estimated tree mortality, the Park Board would expect to produce more than 50,000 carbon credits from its 2019-2021 planting seasons, totaling $1.8 million in proceeds over 25 years.

The Park Board’s equity matrix calls for growing the canopy in areas of the city where it’s younger and thinner — industrial areas and neighborhoods of racially concentrated poverty, Barrick said.

“I would love to see us really put this money to work to help the people that need the most help right now when it comes to tree canopy,” said Park Commissioner Steffanie Musich.

The Park Board was scheduled to vote on the carbon offset credit program at its Wednesday meeting. Alper and Menz had proposed delaying it for additional study, but because Menz had to stay home sick, a majority of commissioners chose to postpone the discussion two weeks so he could participate.

Susan Du covers the city of Minneapolis for the Star Tribune.