In July 2008, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)'s Office of Natural and Human Environment (HEPN) selected the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) to participate in a carbon sequestration pilot program (CSPP). Through the CSPP, FHWA intends explore the feasibility of state DOTs reducing and sequestering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in vegetation within highway rights-of-way (ROW). Under the pilot program, NMDOT is conducting a four-year, $2 million research initiative to quantify the amount of atmospheric carbon that grasslands along highway ROW can sequester. The protocol that will result should be applicable to DOTs nationwide.
The pilot program's success centers on the DOT’s ability to measure and then divest the carbon captured. Options for divestiture are (1) selling carbon credits on an appropriate GHG market or registry for revenue, (2) using carbon credits to offset the DOT’s emissions, or (3) using the credits toward meeting statewide objectives. It is anticipated that the ITS applications will facilitate the measurement and mitigation of GHG in the transportation sector.
Markets for trading "carbon credits," or offsets, are in the early stages of development. The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), and Western Climate Initiative (WCI) are examples of few market based carbon trading initiatives [1, see footnote].
Early results from the NMDOT CSPP, released in February 2009, offer some valuable insights that may be useful to other DOTs and FHWA Division Offices evaluating the viability of carbon sequestration practices in lands they control. Each of these lessons falls into three broad categories: Policy Lessons, Process Lessons, and Human Resources Lessons, presented in three separate articles, with the human resources lessons being identified below.
Human Resources Lessons
- Identify and involve those with knowledge of the eco-regions and habitats of the state. With extensive variability among ecosystems across the country, and in some cases within a state, it is important that personnel with significant understanding of those ecosystems be involved in any carbon sequestration program a DOT may implement. These staff members will likely be responsible for estimating the baseline carbon volume and annual sequestration rates, which are based on soil composition and native plant species distribution in the state. Sound scientific data are needed before a protocol for grasslands that are not grazed can be developed. Additionally, NMDOT has found that its counterparts are relatively unfamiliar with the concept of carbon sequestration. While it may not be central to a state DOT’s mission, outreach to provide relevant stakeholders a working understanding of the topic may be necessary to implement carbon sequestration activities.
- Identify and involve those knowledgeable in carbon dynamics and markets. Expertise in carbon dynamics is most likely found in universities, consulting firms, and/or a state’s Department of Natural Resources. In engaging carbon dynamics experts, it is important that state DOT staff members are aware of how the DOT’s actions can affect sequestration rates, how protocols are applied and carbon accounting carried out, and what the outlets for selling carbon credits are (e.g., CCX, RGGI, WCI, etc.; see footnote 1). It is also important to understand the difference between "tons of carbon" and "tons of carbon equivalents (CO2e)." Most markets trade in tons of CO2e.
- Acquire and maintain support from leadership within the DOT and Division Office. Carbon sequestration in highway ROWs is not currently a burgeoning discipline at state DOTs. Therefore, an effort to create a program at the margin to do so will require the support of upper management decision-makers (who may also need to be briefed about carbon sequestration). Early during the CSPP's candidate selection phase, NMDOT informed its leadership of the opportunity and has worked to keep it notified of progress and obstacles throughout the process.
Early experience from the NMDOT’s carbon sequestration pilot project demonstrates the need for assembling a team with knowledge on eco-system, carbon accounting, and carbon markets.
 Markets for trading "carbon credits," or offsets, are in the early stages of development. The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), launched in 2003, is one such market. It offers a "legally binding integrated trading system" to reduce GHG emissions by facilitating the sale of surplus carbon allowances or the purchase of emissions contracts by its members. Entities seeking to voluntarily reduce their emissions can buy and sell the allowances to offset their excess emissions. Under a national “cap and trade” system, which is an emissions reduction tactic using a national emissions ceiling that is reduced over time, participation in a carbon market would not be voluntary for those with emissions greater than the established threshold.Related market-based initiatives, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and Western Climate Initiative (WCI), target specific sectors for emissions reduction. RGGI is a coalition of 10 northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States that uses a market-based cap-and-trade approach to reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector. WCI is a collaboration of seven U.S. governors and four Canadian Premiers. Much like RGGI, the WCI identifies and employs cooperative ways to reduce greenhouse gases in the region, focusing on a market-based cap-and-trade system. Both RGGI and WCI have established coalitions of states or jurisdictions to engage in coordinated market-based emissions reduction.
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