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A worker for Ecosystem Restoration Associates makes preparations for planting new trees. ((CBC))

A local politician says a B.C. program that sells carbon credits to Air Canada customers is doing more harm than good when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The program, run by a B.C. company called Ecosystem Restoration Associates, involves planting trees in Maple Ridge, Langley and Mission.

The trees absorb carbon dioxide, and the company sells carbon credits to customers and companies that want to offset the greenhouse gases from other activities like flying on a jet airplane or driving a car.

But Michael Sather, the NDP MLA for Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, said the program is a sham because, in some areas, the operators are cutting down mature red alder trees to make way for the ones they are planting.

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Michael Sather, the B.C. New Democrat MLA, is concerned mature red alder trees are being cut down to make way for new tree planting. (CBC)

"It doesn't make any sense. The trees they're cutting down are releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The seedlings that they're planting won't be as big as these trees until 40, 50 [or] 60 years," Sather told CBC News.

"[That] makes … a sham of the whole concept because we need action on climate change now. We need to keep our trees. That's the best way to sequester carbon. We can't wait for 50 years for a tree to get to the size of this one that's already been cut down," said Sather, who is running for mayor of Maple Ridge in the November municipal election.

Sather is also concerned the lost trees will mean less habitat for wildlife, such as areas where the alders have been cut, and invasive species like Himalayan blackberry are taking over.

Benefits are long term, says company

The CEO of Ecosystem Restoration Associates (ERA) doesn't dispute the benefits the fallen trees could have provided in the short term.

But over time, Robert Falls said the Douglas firs, Sitka spruces, western red cedars, and western hemlocks that they're planting will grow bigger and live longer than the alders they cut.

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Ecosystem Restoration Associates CEO Robert Falls says the tree species being planted will grow bigger and live longer than the alders they cut. ((CBC))

"You can't flip a switch and restore an ecosystem. It takes time. And as that ecosystem gets restored, it will increasingly remove carbon from the atmosphere, and that will continue for centuries," Falls said.

ERA, which sells carbon offsets to individual consumers, and companies across Canada, estimates it will take 16 to 24 years for the new seedlings to sequester the carbon emitted by the alders that were cut down.

Falls said the intervention is needed to return the forests to a diverse mix of conifers.

Air Canada customers pay for the seedlings when they click "offset now" on Air Canada's website. That allows them to buy the carbon credits sold by a Toronto company called Zerofootprint.

Zerofootprint pays ERA to plant trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, which in theory, makes up for the greenhouse gas emissions from their flight.

Practices still being developed

Zerofootprint CEO Ron Dembo said he's satisfied that ERA’s program has environmental benefits.

"I’ve seen the science and the verification … we thought this is the best-managed tree project we’ve seen," Dembo said.

Carbon offsetting is relatively new, and best practices are still being developed, he said.

"You could look at this as something to trash because it’s not perfect, or you could say this is the beginning of something that will be a very big part of our lives."

So far the company has planted more than 300,000 trees and plans to expand to other municipalities.

With files from Lisa Johnson