EVERYBODY knows that growing green plants soak up carbon dioxide (CO2) and power plants dirty the atmosphere with it, but AES Corporation may be the first polluter to directly link smokestacks with trees. From its Virginia headquarters, the privately owned utility is negotiating to buy 146,000 acres of subtropical forest in Paraguay to help compensate for the 13.4 million metric tons of carbon its Hawaiian power plant, under construction on Oahu, is expected to emit as carbon dioxide from 1992 to 2027.
A survey is under way to determine how much carbon is stored in the Mbaracayu forest. If the trees were cut, this carbon would be released into the atmosphere.
Not everyone agrees that trees-for-carbon swaps are a solution for pollution. "For third-world countries it can be advantageous, as a source of financing for reforestation," says Fabio Feldmann, a Brazilian congressman and environmentalist. "But I think all these trade-offs are dangerous, because they don't attack the need to limit the sources of pollution." He adds that scientific studies have not concluded whether forest conservation and reforestation can roll back the "greenhouse effect" of CO2 emiss i
AES plans to link forests with each new power plant it builds, but the company doesn't see this as a lasting answer. "We are searching for longer-term sustainable kinds of technology," says Sheryl Sturges, AES director of strategic planning, "but we have not been able to find anything as cost-effective as this. I don't think this is a 200- to 500-year solution. It's what we can do right now."The Paraguay forest came on the market when the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the finance arm of the W o
rld Bank, took it over in lieu of payment on a bad loan. The IFC almost sold it to a lumber company for more than $5 million. With the help of The Nature Conservancy, a Virginia-based environmental group, the IFC agreed to sell it for $2 million to a Paraguay-based trust set up by AES.
The Paraguay project is to include special provisions for several thousand Ache indigenous people who live in the area. "Eleven thousand acres will be titled to them," says Geoffrey Barnard, executive director of The Nature Conservancy's Latin America Division. "And they will have hunting rights and traditional use rights on the reserve."
AES has already completed one carbon offset project, linking its existing Uncasville, Conn., utility with the planting of 52 million trees in Guatemala. The company says this program, in cooperation with the Peace Corps, USAID, and CARE, is providing 40,000 small farmers with assistance on agricultural techniques. AES says that 18 million tons of carbon will be conserved or absorbed in Guatemala, more than what the Connecticut plant will emit over its lifetime.
AES executives say they don't know if any other power plants have tried carbon mitigation. "A number of utilities and competitors contacted us and asked how we did it," says Dan Rothaupt, manager of the Oahu power plant. "It's good to know that people are considering putting it into their plans."