The big player

The kiri is all the talk in the carbon credit market. Will it deliver?

Jean-Pol Grandmont

The Chinese kiri tree is a miracle of nature. It grows 10 to 20 feet in a single year and up to 80 in seven, it regenerates from the roots after it’s been harvested, it’s so hearty that it can survive wildfires, and millions of the deciduous trees are about to be planted around the world.

“They grow fast. That’s probably the one outstanding characteristic that gets everybody’s attention,” says David Drexler, who owns a kiri plantation in Georgia. He says the tree, which produces a pale and lightweight hardwood, has an untapped potential that farmers and investors are beginning to notice.

The tree’s rapid growth and regeneration mean it can go through three harvest cycles in the 30 years it takes to grow a single pine. Those same characteristics also allow it to sink an amazing amount of CO2—about 2.5 tonnes per tree over seven years—making it a lucrative new player in the emerging carbon credit market. “It’s literally like pulling canisters of CO2 out of the air,” says Martin Tindall, president of ECO2, a California-based company. “It’s fantastic.”

Kiris are already popular across Asia, where they’re made into boats, furniture and musical instruments. The trees also play an important traditional role—it’s said the regenerative phoenix will land only in their branches, and it’s an old custom in Japan to plant one when a girl is born so it can be harvested to make a dowry chest on her wedding day.

Tindall plans to use the trees for “aforest­ation”—creating a forest where there wasn’t one before. Next month his company will plant three million trees across 14,000 acres in Reno, Nev., kicking off a 50-year project that’s expected to create hundreds of jobs and generate over $220 million in revenue from lumber, biofuel and carbon credit sales. And, if the project is successful, the trees will remove a total of 6.5 million tonnes of CO2 out of the air every seven years.

Other projects are already under way. Australian company Environmental Forest Farms Management Ltd. started the Kiri Park Projects, planting 150,000 trees on 300 hectares of property to use as timber. Silva Tree, based in Central America, is reforesting 1,500 hectares of Panamanian rainforest with kiris, and the Sierra Gold Corporation, an African mining company, just purchased 1,000 trees to start a reforestation and carbon credit program in Sierra Leone. Even former president Jimmy Carter owns a five-hectare plantation in Georgia.

But experts say that although the tree has incredible potential, investors and the public need to be wary of overhyped benefits. “It’s easy to farm with a calculator,” says Drexler, adding that the kiri is “not a plant-and-forget tree.” He says it’s common for sellers to inflate the value of kiri lumber and their ease and speed of growing to promise gigantic returns for little work. He adds that people often don’t realize the trees need a huge amount of water and near perfect soil and weather conditions to grow quickly, and that he can’t see how Tindall could possibly hydrate plants in the middle of a Nevada desert.

JoAnne Skelly, a horticulturalist with the University of Nevada, also has questions about the water required, saying high winds and dry air will suck moisture from the trees, creating an impossible demand in an area that’s tearing up golf courses because of severe water shortages. And, she says, Nevada also gets quite cold, meaning the plantation will have to thrive with about 120 frost-free days instead of the 180 kiris normally need.

“I would be very excited for a business like that to succeed,” says Skelly, “but they will really need to go into it with eyes wide open.”

For his part, Tindall says his company is doing exactly that. “It’s not just a matter of ‘we think it’s going to work.’ That would be ludicrous. It’s securing that local expertise to make sure.”

To that end, he’s worked with forestry and horticultural experts to develop a cold-resistant and faster-growing strain of kiri called Paulownia elongata. Even though his company is only planting 14,000 acres of this strain, they leased 78,000 acres of land to secure extra water rights, and plan to use a form of piped irrigation to deliver nutrients and keep the trees hydrated without losing any liquid to evaporation. And he acknowledges the frost problem, saying it will slow growth by up to 20 per cent, but that the trees are so hearty and turn over so quickly that the business will stay profitable.

“It’s a natural phenomenon that we’re able to leverage,” says Tindall. “There’s a direct link between positive environmental impact and positive economic impact. We’re commercial tree huggers.”

Only time will tell if the kiri tree has been oversold or if it will actually deliver big.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.