Vatican Hung(a)ry for Carbon Offset

Conservative and traditionalist are the more likely adjectives that readily come to mind in association with the Vatican.

This popular view may become somewhat outdated, though, with the news that the Vatican has just become the world's first state to announce its intention to become carbon-neutral.

Its vital partner in this endeavor is a start-up enterprise from Hungary called KlimaFa and its San Francisco parent company, Planktos International. The company plans to recultivate an area that once was the lush 37-acre Tiszakeszi forest northeast of Hungary's capital, Budapest.

The so-called Vatican Climate Forest may be more than 500 miles away from the Vatican, but according to KlimaFa it will be large enough, at least in theory, to offset the Vatican's entire carbon-dioxide emissions for 2007.

To the more than 1 billion Catholics, the Vatican's environmental concern should not come as a surprise. In his 2001 Blueprint for the New Millennium, Pope John Paul II stressed the importance of protecting the environment. "How can we remain indifferent to the prospect of an ecological crisis, which is making vast areas of our planet uninhabitable and hostile to humanity?"

Now his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, is leading the appeal. The Vatican is progressively becoming "greener" with such projects as plans to source much of its electricity from solar panels.

During a ceremony July 5, the Holy See accepted KlimaFa's offer to plant the new Vatican Climate Forest in Hungary.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, who presided at the event, told those present, "This donation means an entire section of a national park in central Europe will be reforested. In this way, the Vatican will do its small part in contributing to the elimination of polluting emissions from carbon dioxide that is threatening the survival of this planet."

He then referred to The Book of Genesis, "which tells us of a beginning in which God placed man as guardian over the earth to make it fruitful."

The Symbolism of a Green Vatican

Andras Stoltz, a Hungarian journalist who writes on environmental issues, told ABC News, "The symbolism of this event is what matters, not the trees that may be planted. By accepting this offer the Vatican now carries the obligation to spread the 'green' message nearly as much as it's spreading the word of God."

Peter Rohonyi, a Hungarian energy and climate campaigner from Greenpeace, also remains skeptical as to the positive environmental contribution the project may have.

"This is nothing more than a publicity effort by a small, unknown company putting the trendy topic of environment protection to their own good use," he told ABC News. "They haven't even been able to present the Hungarian government with a realistic plan and they don't even have the government's permission for this project. Their partners, Planktos, have told the U.S. Congress that the project is going ahead. That's not true. And how are you going to calculate the Vatican's emissions? How are you going to separate the Vatican from Rome? It's all a stunt."

Nevertheless, KlimaFa (Fa means "tree" in Hungarian) claims that Hungarian scientists are already involved in the project, and besides being beneficial to the environment, its project will provide work for people in an area of high unemployment.

Gergely Torda, a plant biologist from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, told The New York Times that later this year KlimaFa will begin clearing weeds, using local labor and then planting native saplings like willows, beeches, ash, certain poplars and oaks.

According to Torda, the growing forest will absorb 10 times the carbon that the land currently absorbs. It will be 50 to 150 years before a mature forest forms.

Reforesting in the EU

Projects such as these are especially viable in countries that are new European Union members. In order to join the EU, some new member states had to decommission much of their farmland in order to meet farming quotas in order to prevent overproduction within the EU. Some of this land is now available for reforesting.

KlimaFa is already thinking about forest planting projects in Bulgaria and Romania, and in spite of being on the market for only 18 months, it has managed to get computer giant Dell interested in its plans.

"It seems so obvious, but no one was doing it," David Gazdag, KlimaFa's managing director in Budapest, told The New York Times. He added, "We believe this Climate Forest initiative clearly reflects the Vatican's deep commitment to both environmental healing and the welfare of the poor. Besides their local ecological and global climatic benefits, these projects offer many rewarding new eco-forestry jobs to struggling rural communities."

Indeed, under Pope Benedict, the Vatican has become more committed to environmental awareness.

Sunday, the pope led the Catholic Church's first "eco-friendly" youth rally and told up to half a million people that world leaders must make courageous decisions to save the planet "before it is too late."

Earlier this month, he addressed about 16,000 people in Vatican's St. Peter's Square saying, "Encouraged by the growing recognition of the need to preserve the environment, I invite all of you to join me in praying and working for greater respect for the wonders of God's creation."

Last month Pope Benedict said the human race must listen to "the voice of the earth" or risk destroying its very existence.

This religious dimension with which Catholic bishops see the threat to the environment was demonstrated by Cardinal Melchor Sánchez de Toca Alameda, an official at the Council for Culture at the Vatican. After the Vatican-KlimaFa agreement was announced, he told the Catholic News Service that this was like doing penance.

"One can emit less carbon dioxide by not using heating and not driving a car, or one can do penance by intervening to offset emissions, in this case by planting trees," he said.

For now, the domes of the Vatican still glitter with their ancient gold and not with solar panels. Rangers at the Bukk national park, the proposed forest site, have heard nothing about new trees being planted. But as environmentalist Rohonyi told ABC News, "Generally, this is a good thing. The idea is praiseworthy. Because of this deal the Vatican will perhaps start propagating environmental awareness among its faithful."