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Burlington Councilors Approve Contract To Sell Carbon Offsets

Burlington City Hall
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Burlington City Hall

At their meeting this week, Burlington city councilors approved entering a contract with a private company that would sell the carbon offsets resulting from the planting of trees.
The Burlington Parks Recreation and Waterfront Department maintains nearly 200 acres of forested parks.  It is also planting nearly 2,000 seedlings in rights-of-way over the next two years. In a memo to the city council, Burlington Public Works officials noted that they had looked into the idea of the city being compensated for using the trees as carbon offsets. A resolution put before the council on Monday authorizes the city to contract with Urban Offsets. Ward 6 Democrat Karen Paul explained that if the company can sell the offsets over the next two years the city would get $135,000 which would be placed in a dedicated fund to support more tree plantings.  “It’s a relatively cutting edge and new approach in the area of urban forestry. It’s an attempt to find alternative revenues beyond the property tax to support new tree plantings and support the community’s environmental goals. And even though there is no guarantee that the carbon offsets would be able to be sold that would not influence the number of trees that are planted.”

Burlington Chief Innovation Officer Brian Lowe explained the overall goal of the offset and tree planting program.  “I think the way to think about this is that carbon offsets they offer a way to price the impact of greenhouse gases and they are a powerful tool that helps us address climate change and they create incentives to reduce carbon pollution. I think this is particularly true in the context that we have here where the resolution before the council creates a reserve fund that would force us to use any revenues that we generate from these offsets to plant more trees. There are serious property tax pressures in Burlington and so we’re trying to find alternative revenue sources that would allow us to continue and sustain the pace of tree plantings that Parks is doing which has increased significantly in the last couple years.”

Progressives on the council opposed the idea. Peri Freeman of the Central District is concerned that selling offsets enables polluters.  “My concern is that we’re effectively enabling people with financial incentives to keep polluting instead of actually stopping them from polluting. When I hear companies and businesses like Duke and Major League Soccer getting in some way off the hook from making an investment on their own with the financial resources that they have it’s incredibly concerning and it does not, in my estimation, address the underlying issue.”

East District Progressive Jack Hansen said it’s the buyers of the offsets that benefit rather than the seller.  “The ideal scenario for carbon offsets is to support projects that wouldn’t be able to occur without that payment.   I do not believe that’s the scenario that we’re in in Burlington. I believe that we can find the funding in Burlington to plant the trees that we want to plant. So this is a project that still would happen even without this offset. And the buyer if they don’t go to us they have to go somewhere else to meet their goal so they either support another project that truly wouldn’t have happened or they actually do it themselves. So I think the net outcome of this is not a win.”

Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, noted that this is a new idea for the city.  “The problem that we face as a globe is that we don’t put a price on carbon and we’re suffering from the ramifications of that. From my perspective this is a vote for trees, this is a vote to protect taxpayers, this is a vote to put a price on carbon and do something significant about global warming. The arguments against this have all turned each of those on their heads in a way that I think is pretty perverse.”

The measure passed on a 7 to 4 vote.  
 Audio from the Burlington City Council meeting is courtesy of Channel 17 Town Meeting Television.