How much is a tree worth to the environment?

It might seem like an abstract, even whimsical question. But it’s one that Hawaii policymakers soon will try to answer, thanks to two bills passed by the Legislature during the session that ended on Thursday.

House Bills 2182 and 1986 seek to make Hawaii a “carbon neutral” state by 2045. That means Hawaii would offset more carbon dioxide than it produces, through activities like planting trees, which can essentially store carbon, the greenhouse gas responsible for climate change.

State Rep. Chris Lee, center, author of House Bill 2182, called the measure “the biggest step forward on climate change any state has yet taken.” Stewart Yerton/Civill Beat

HB 2182 sets 2045 as another landmark year for Hawaii. State law already establishes 2045 as the deadline by which utilities must produce 100 percent of the electricity sold in the state from renewable resources. The mayors from each county also have pledged to eliminate fossil fuels from their ground transportation fleets by 2045.

In a sense, by mid-century, Hawaii aims to be fossil fuel-free and carbon neutral. The bills now await Gov. David Ige’s signature.

“The idea that we’re monetizing our trees – that is so game changing,” said Sen. Glenn Wakai, who spoke at a press conference discussing the bills.

Hawaii industries could buy carbon credits, but so could businesses in other states. California, for instance, generally sets caps on carbon production but lets carbon-producing businesses exceed the cap by buying carbon credits to offset the excess carbon they produce.

Could Hawaii raise money simply by preserving forests? Courtesy: Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources

The idea is that by creating a carbon offset program in Hawaii, local farmers, for instance, could get cash from California industries in exchange for planting trees.

“The result is it’s going to be an economic windfall for the state,” Wakai said.

There’s still a long way to go before any of this would get set up. HB 2182 mainly establishes a Greenhouse Gas Sequestration Task Force and sets a 2023 deadline for crafting a plan to meet the zero emissions target by 2045. HB 1986 directs the state Office of Planning to work with the task force to create a carbon offset program.

For two wonkish bills that do little more than lay out a vision, Tuesday’s press conference at Magic Island in Honolulu’s Ala Moana Beach Park attracted a robust turnout with some legislative heavy hitters and the main players from Oahu’s environmental and renewable energy community, as well as students from Punahou School’s Sustainability Club.

Rep. Chris Lee and Sen. Mike Gabbard, who head the environment committees in their respective chambers, both spoke. So did Marti Townsend, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii; Josh Stanbro, executive director of the City of Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency; and Dawn Lippert, chief executive of the Elemental Excelerator, an incubator for renewable energy startups.

“This is the biggest step forward on climate change any state has yet taken, but we know we can do this and it’s going to benefit everyone,” said Lee, who authored HB 2182.

“What excites us is that we’re setting a line in the sand: zero carbon by this date,” said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation, which promotes the use of renewables as a market-based approach to address climate change.

Hawaiian Airlines Daniel Inouye Airport.
Although it has not taken a position on the current bills, Hawaiian Airlines is looking at carbon offsets as a way to reduce its carbon footprint. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Like other Pacific islands, Hawaii is viewed as especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change including increasingly severe storms, rising sea levels and damage to coral reefs and fisheries. And the bills spell out the stakes in stark terms, citing a record $306 billion in damage from natural disasters in the U.S. alone in 2017.

The state “must be prepared to provide more resources and support for those affected by disaster-scale flooding, coastal seawater inundation, and shortages of potable water and agricultural water,” HB 1986 says in its preamble. One idea is that revenue generated from carbon offsets can be used to help mitigate such effects caused by climate change.

The offsets also could be used to address one of the thornier issues Hawaii faces in its quest to become the nation’s greenest state: how to deal with the massive carbon footprint of the air carriers that link the archipelago to the rest of the world. One idea is that air carriers could use carbon offsets to mitigate the effects of their passenger jets.

Ann Botticelli, a spokeswoman for Hawaiian Airlines, said that, although the carrier had not studied the current bills, it is “absolutely” interested in carbon offsets.

“It’s clear that for the foreseeable future, tourism is the major industry here,” she said. “And tourism’s success depends on keeping the environment clean and healthy.”

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