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Vatican Penance: Forgive Us Our Carbon Output

By Elisabeth Rosenthal (The New York Times) - January 2, 2007

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 stretch of land by the Tisza River to offset the Vatican’s carbon emissions.

The trees, on a 37-acre tract of land that will be renamed the Vatican climate forest, will in theory absorb as much carbon dioxide as the Vatican will produce in 2007: driving cars, heating offices, lighting St. Peter’s 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, leader of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who took part in a ceremony marking the event at the Vatican. “The Book of Genesis tells us of a beginning in which God placed man as guardian over the earth to make it fruitful.”

In many respects, the program 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 here, and provide jobs in an economically depressed area.

Klimafa, an 18-month-old company, gets the Vatican’s seal of approval and free publicity for its first project. In addition to the Vatican, several European governments, as well as Dell, the computer maker, have bought carbon offsets that will be backed by planting trees on the land.

“It seems so obvious, but no one was doing it,” said David Gazdag of Klimafa, who brokered the project with backing from his San Francisco parent company, Planktos International, which specializes in ecosystem restoration. But creating and selling carbon “offsets” or “credits” is still a novel idea for business and science, and much debate remains. The calculation for planting trees is especially complicated.

Planting forests is only “a partial solution, and a temporary one,” said Laszlo Galhidy, a forestry officer for the environmental group WWF Hungary, although he praised the project as useful. Young forests — dominated by growing trees — soak up a lot of carbon dioxide, but once the forests mature, they absorb far less, he said. Also, he said, 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 the trees grow.

The Kyoto Protocol and the European Union’s cap and trade program set emissions targets for countries or large companies. Those that exceed their allowances by 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 European Union market, carbon credits are trading at about $28, with one credit countering one ton of emitted carbon dioxide. Klimafa says its donation to the Vatican is worth about $130,000. The European Union program 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 allowances, whereas Eastern countries tend to have excess credits to sell because 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 its agricultural policy. In Hungary, as in other new member states, huge tracts of marginal fields have been bought by the government from farmers and are available for reforesting.

The land that will hold 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.

The area is a mix of 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 land is a jumble of goldenrod and amorpha fruticosa, a weed that grows like wildfire.

Gergely Torda, a plant biologist from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences who is consulting on the project, 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 native saplings like 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, Mr. 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. Mr. Torda said it would take 50 to 150 years to produce a mature forest.

After the Vatican agreement was announced, Msgr. Melchor Sánchez de Toca Alameda, an official at the Council for Culture at the Vatican, 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.