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GM's Money Trees

GM's Money Trees

Mark Shapiro /

December 01, 2009

I am standing in the shadow of General Motors’ $1 tree. It’s a native guaricica, with pale white bark and a spreading crown that looms about 40 feet above my head. Hanging from its trunk is a small plaque that identifies it as tree No. 129. I’ve come here, to the verdant chaos of Brazil’s Atlantic forest, to understand the far-reaching and politically explosive controversies taking shape in diplomatic corridors thousands of miles away over the fate of trees like this one.

No. 129 stands in the heart of the Cachoeira reserve in the state of Paraná—one of the last slivers of a forest that once blanketed much of the country’s southeastern coast. Just 7 percent of the Atlantic forest remains, but it is still one of the Earth’s richest centers of biodiversity, home to a wealth of plants and creatures comparable to the Amazon’s. On the way here, our group—led by Ricardo Miranda de Britez and his team of forestry experts from the Brazilian conservation group Society for Wildlife Research and Environmental Education (SPVS)—walked past clusters of yellow-and-white orchids, stepped over the footprints of an ocelot, kept an eye out for the endangered golden lion tamarin, and were bitten by, it seems, every one of the thousands of species of insects native to the area.

But our journey is not focused on the rare creatures in the forest. It’s about the forest itself—the trees that are our partners in respiration, inhaling carbon dioxide, exhaling oxygen, and storing the carbon in their trunks and leaves. That simple process makes them one of Earth’s most potent bulwarks against climate change (a.k.a. a “carbon sink”); but when they are cut and burned, all that stored carbon is released into the atmosphere. Already, some 32 million acres of tropical rainforest are destroyed each year, an amount of land equivalent to the state of Mississippi’s; deforestation, according to the United Nations, is responsible for roughly one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions.

What will it cost to keep those trees standing? And who’s going to pay for it? The challenge of assigning precise values to an increasingly rare commodity—wild trees—and indeed the question of whether they are a commodity at all, is one of the most hotly contested in the climate world.

It was an unusual deal that landed tree No. 129 at the center of the debate. Between 2000 and 2002, the US-based Nature Conservancy struck an alliance with three of the planet’s leading carbon emitters: General Motors, Chevron, and American Electric Power. Together the corporations gave the environmental group $18 million to purchase 50,000 acres of Brazilian Atlantic forest, much of which had been degraded by grazing. Three reserves were created: Serra do Itaqui, financed with $5 million from AEP; Morro da Mina, paid for with $3 million from Chevron; and Cachoeira, underwritten by $10 million from GM. (GM’s role in the project survived the company’s bankruptcy, which means that No. 129 is now partially owned by you and me.) SVPS was brought in to manage the reserves, which together form one contiguous forest known as the Guaraqueçaba Environmental Protection Area. You’ll see Guaraqueçaba promoted on the Nature Conservancy’s website as an example of corporate partnerships that make “an invaluable contribution to the preservation of the planet’s biodiversity.” What you won’t see is what the companies get out of the deal: the potentially lucrative rights to the carbon sequestered in the trees.

At tree No. 129, de Britez takes out a tape measure and unspools it around the trunk. We’re at one of the 190 carbon dioxide measuring stations—each a group of trees with numbered plaques—scattered around the Guaraqueçaba forest. Documenting the bulk of the reserve’s trees is an ongoing enterprise, like tracking tagged whales.

“We measure the biomass of these trees and their carbon sequestration,” de Britez says as a ranger picks up the other end of the tape measure and writes down No. 129’s stats. It’s 3 feet in diameter and about 45 feet tall. He estimates the carbon it contains at 95 kilograms—just under one-tenth of a ton. At $10 a ton, the upper end of the range at which carbon offsets trade in the US, No. 129 is worth about $1. Scale up to the two to three tons of carbon per acre that de Britez estimates across the 50,000-acre reserve, and the potential payoff, in addition to the public relations value, comes into focus.