AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new pilot program to plant saplings on private land and sell the resulting carbon credits locally kicks off this weekend.

The nonprofit TreeFolks will take a group of volunteers to a landowner’s property in eastern Travis County on Saturday, Dec. 14, to plant 1,500 native Texas saplings, including walnut, bald cypress and a couple types of sycamores, launching the Travis County Floodplain Reforestation Program.

Thousands of saplings are ready for planting at the TreeFolks headquarters in Travis County. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Over the course of the current planting season, which runs through March, TreeFolks will plant 50,000 saplings on about 90 acres of land, both private and public, in the county.

The group chose eastern Travis County floodplains because “it’s been so degraded through farming and ranching over the last hundred or so years,” said Valerie Tamburri, TreeFolks’ reforestation coordinator.

New trees will help prevent erosion, clean water and keep the surrounding area cooler, she explained. But a big reason this program differs from other reforestation efforts is the sale of the resulting carbon credits to the city of Austin.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide, a main driver of climate change. By planting acres of new forest, TreeFolks is generating offsets for the carbon produced by driving cars, generating electricity and other activities that burn fossil fuels.

The nonprofit will sell the carbon credits from the reforestation program to the city of Austin to help it reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2020.

“We’re keeping carbon credits local,” said Mark Fogleman, Treefolks’ GIS technician and carbon assistant.

How much carbon?

TreeFolks partnered with Seattle-based City Forest Credits to determine just how much carbon dioxide the reforestation program will pull from the atmosphere.

That organizations determined that every acre of trees will draw 106.7 tons of carbon from the air over 25 years.

TreeFolk’s plans to plant more than 90 acres of trees in this first season, meaning that by 2045, the new growth will absorb around 9,800 tons of carbon.

That sounds like a lot, but it’s equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide 2,000 cars pump into the atmosphere in just one year. To put that in perspective, the city of Austin’s fleet numbers around 6,000 vehicles, the vast majority of which still run on gas, diesel or compressed natural gas.

“Obviously, cutting emissions is the ultimate goal,” Fogleman said, but the program is still an important piece of the fight against climate change. “In the long term, this could be a really good plan for local communities, especially the city of Austin.”

The city will buy up the carbon credits generated by the new trees over the course of the next two and a half decades, starting with a small portion of them next year.

2020 carbon neutrality goal

In 2007, Austin’s city council approved the lofty goal of becoming carbon neutral by next year, meaning city facilities, fleets and all other operations wouldn’t be emitting any net carbon.

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That can be achieved both through emissions reductions and through offsets like the credits the city is buying from TreeFolks.

In order to map its progress toward that goal, Lucia Athens, the city’s sustainability officer, told KXAN, the department conducts an analysis each year of the previous year’s carbon footprint.

The city won’t know until early 2021 if it successfully became carbon neutral by the end of 2020, Athens said, but there’s still a long way to go.

Take the city’s fleet, for example. By the end of next year, 330 vehicles will be electric, about 5.5% of the total fleet. Even if the city was able to replace all its vehicles with electric options — which it can’t, because the fleet includes trucks and construction equipment without electric alternatives on the market — it wouldn’t be enough of a carbon emission reduction to reach the goal.

That’s where the offsets come in. The credits the city is buying from TreeFolks are an example of a pathway, Athens said, that can help lead to carbon neutrality.

She thinks the city will achieve the goal, but no one will know for sure until after next year.

Emissions have peaked

A bright spot in recent months is the fact that the city of Austin’s greenhouse gas emissions have reached their peak.

C40 Cities, a collection of municipalities worldwide committed to fighting climate change, announced in October Austin was one of 30 cities to reach the “crucial milestone” this year.