Tallying up climate change tradeoffs

Stoughton church debates trees vs solar panels

Trinity Episcopal Church in Stoughton is discovering that fighting climate change requires some tradeoffs.

The church wants to reduce its carbon footprint, so it recently began exploring whether it would make sense to chop down a group of trees on the property to make way for an array of solar panels.

Church leaders brought in Eric Olson, a senior lecturer at Brandeis University, to measure the carbon stored in the small forest. As Bruce Gellerman reports for WBUR, “temperate forests like those in Massachusetts are the best in the world at storing carbon from the air, socking away twice as much per acre as tropical rain forests.”

What Olson and his team of graduate students discovered was that the solar panels were the way to go to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “The solar array would pay back the loss of the forest in about 2½ years,” Olson said.

These types of calculations are likely to become commonplace in the years ahead as individuals, organizations, states, and nations struggle to deal with climate change.

In the recent Senate debate on climate change legislation, Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester won passage of an amendment that would require state officials to develop a baseline figure for the carbon sequestered in the state’s forests, goals for increasing that amount, and recommendations to conserve and enhance what the amendment called “natural and working lands.”

Some environmentalists are wary of the sequestration goals, concerned they could be used to block solar farms if they require trees to be knocked down.

Judging from the debate at Trinity Episcopal, the concerns may be valid. Even after Olson’s report on the benefits of chopping the trees down and replacing them with solar panels, church leaders were reluctant to move forward. Some members of the congregation wanted to keep the trees, which look nice and give off oxygen during photosynthesis. Why not put solar panels on the church roof and keep the trees, they asked.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“It’s not about the money,” said Bonnie Hickey, assistant treasurer at Trinity. “Keep the trees. Save the trees and the animals. We’ve cut down enough trees.”

Olson said the struggle at Trinity Episcopal is a foreshadowing of what’s to come. “I think there’s going to be increasing demand for wind and solar, and I think there’s going to be some forest cut. And that’s going to be a painful, painful decision,” he said.