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 fall s into three broad categories: Policy Lessons, Process Lessons, and Human Resources Lessons, presented in three separate articles, with the process lessons being identified below.
- Use hectare, not acre, as the unit of measurement for the right-of-way (ROW) available for carbon sequestration. To participate in the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), land should be measured and reported in hectares, not acres.
- Develop carbon sequestration protocols for grasslands that are not grazed. Upon closer inspection, NMDOT found that information on carbon sequestration protocols for grasslands that are not grazed is not available. NMDOT may be creating a protocol for grasslands not grazed and a process for DOTs to participate in marketing carbon credits.
- Plant a climate- and season-appropriate composition of seed species. In ecological terms, construction projects and re-vegetation practices, depending on the time of construction, may both be better served as two separate projects. Seeds should be planted when they are likely to receive sufficient precipitation and sunlight to grow without irrigation. In some cases, improved reseeding practices are expected to significantly increase carbon sequestration rates.
- Study the maintenance and operations records that are currently kept and determine how to supplement them. As part of the CSPP, NMDOT is developing an understanding of the types of data (and acceptable surrogates) needed to support a DOT's effort to bring carbon credits to market. Examples are land ownership records, fuel purchases, electricity usage, mowing statistics, etc. Land ownership records are important in determining the number of acres under the DOT's control and thus potentially available for carbon sequestration. Data such as fuel purchases and electricity usage are important because evidence of emissions reductions can be used to meet GHG goals outlined in a contract with a carbon market. NMDOT has noted that if data required for participation were currently incomplete or not collected, it is likely easy to begin filling these gaps.
Early experience from the NMDOT’s carbon sequestration pilot project demonstrates the need for identifying carbon sequestration protocols for lands not used for grazing, developing acceptable units for measurement for the ROW land, and collecting data supporting the measurement of carbon credit.
 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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