Houston nonprofit the Texas Coastal Exchange has awarded its first round of grants to local landowners to help fight climate change by storing carbon dioxide — a climate-warming greenhouse gas — in their coastal marshes.
Coastal marshes naturally absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and store it in their soil. But over time, a lot of these lands get developed. Jim Blackburn, an environmental law professor at Rice and the President of TCX, said the goal is to keep these large tracts of land together by paying landowners for this "ecological service" they're already offering society.
"The concept is to develop mechanisms to pay landowners for services they provide to the community as a whole that they don't get paid for. And that if they did get paid for, they might do a much better job of protecting their land and expanding these services," he said.
Beyond storing carbon, coastal marshes also act as flood buffers and fish nurseries.
The first three groups to receive grants are the privately-owned LaBelle Ranch in Jefferson County and two Galveston nonprofits, the Galveston Bay Foundation and Scenic Galveston.
In order to pay landowners, the TCX set up a system for people — and corporations — to calculate their carbon footprint and make a donation based on that amount. Blackburn said the average person living in Houston has a carbon footprint of about 10 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Each acre of coastal marshland can absorb about 2 tons of CO2 per year.
"Each of us, we believe, has a responsibility for our own carbon footprint and this is a way of securing its removal from the atmosphere and storing it and putting it away," he said.
The grants operate on a 10-year rolling basis. To receive a grant, landowners commit to not developing the land for 10 years — with the hope they might also take actions to further enhance it and increase the amount of carbon they're storing.
James Broussard with the LaBelle Ranch said they received an initial grant to preserve 320 acres.
"Certain parts of the property, and particularly where this grant effects, creates almost no income so it's very hard to keep maintaining it in its present state," he said. "So the grant gives us some income to keep it the way it is."
Broussard said he hopes in addition to protecting the land, they can also use the grant money to enhance it and let the wetlands expand. He also hopes their grant can grow to include more acreage.
"I have a real love for the marsh, but not everybody does," he said. "When you really see the benefit that it’s doing for humanity, and it’s not you paying 100% of the bill to benefit humanity, everybody can get on the same page a lot easier."
TCX was set up last year, and in the first year raised about $35,000, according to Blackburn.
"The donations that we had to make grants from weren’t as high as we had hoped," he said. "I think as we get more grants and as the amount of those grants increases, the number of landowners will increase as well."
He said they've already surpassed that amount this year. TCX also plans to expand to include grants for owners of coastal prairies and bottomlands.
"To my mind, this is the way to solve the climate dilemma, to basically integrate climate thinking into everything we do and make it part of our economic system," Blackburn said. “If we don’t reflect dollar value of the impact that each of us has on climate, frankly I’m not sure we’re ever going to get it."