How Forest Carbon Offsets Promote Good Stewardship

July 29, 2021

Forest carbon offsets are a mechanism that allow landowners to receive compensation in exchange for their commitment to sequester more carbon in their forest than would otherwise be sequestered in the absence of conducting a forest carbon project. Historically, the economic goals of forest management were only achieved by harvesting timber. Today, landowners see revenue potential through a different lens.

Forest carbon projects have environmental benefits beyond storing carbon from the atmosphere and aiding in climate change mitigation; they also promote sustainable forest management while generating revenue from the offsets that can be put back into improved forest management practices. In addition, carbon revenues can be used to finance alternative forest management practices that generate little or no revenue at, all such as wildlife habitat improvement or wildfire risk mitigation.  

There are several early-action silviculture techniques that can be implemented and have been proven to increase forest growth over time. However, many of these techniques are not utilized extensively as they involve significant expenses and low revenue in the near-term. Implementation of these techniques will eventually yield a financial on the early-action investment—but this may take up to 20 – 60 years. For this reason, landowners will commonly implement even-aged harvests such as clearcutting in order to receive immediate revenue.  Examples of these early-action silviculture techniques include site preparation, seeding, pre-commercial thinning, commercial thinning, and more. All of these techniques increase forest growth over time but present a large, near-term financial hurdle.

The revenue generated from carbon offsets can help pay for these early-action silviculture treatments, and the added benefit is that, with increased growth, comes increased carbon sequestration. A cycle is generated whereby managing a forest for carbon sequestration can provide a self-sustaining revenue stream that enhances the structure of the forest.

forest carbon offsets promote good forest stewardship

The silviculture techniques mentioned above facilitate increased carbon sequestration over time by reducing surrounding competition and aiding in forest regeneration. Forest growth is hindered by competition for resources, such as sunlight, nutrients, and water. Therefore, when the forest becomes too dense, the trees are competing with each other for the necessary ingredients for survival. By thinning a forest at various stages of its life, space is created for the residual trees to grow larger, allowing the canopy to release. Since growth is commensurate with carbon sequestration, thinning is one technique that can create a healthy, carbon-dense forest. Other techniques mentioned such as site preparation and seeding allow regeneration to occur more quickly after harvest. 

As an advocate for sustainable forest management and harvests that increase forest carbon sequestration over time, I also recognize the importance of unmanaged old-growth forests. These forests offer benefits that a rotating forest cannot offer such as habitat for cavity-nesting birds and small mammals, a diversity of plants, insects, and fungi, and a reliable space for ungulates to take shelter.

Forests need to be managed to achieve a variety of goals that target environmental, economic, and social values. Carbon offsets are a mechanism that can be used to increase the amount of the protected (old-growth) forest within a heavily managed property as it incentivizes reduced harvest levels in order for landowners to still meet both their economic and environmental goals.

Some other uses of carbon offsets that promote good forest stewardship are enhancing recreational opportunities on the property, increasing wildlife habitat, or buying more land to develop more carbon projects. Carbon offsets incentivize the purchase of forestland for conservation and forest protection as they provide reasonable assurance that lands enrolled within a forest carbon project will be managed sustainably with increased carbon sequestration for a number of years. This may be a provoking option for conservation authorities and other NGOs whose main goal is to acquire forestland in order to protect it.

It is not uncommon for dire financial circumstances to occur that prevents these types of organizations from following through with their intended goals. Land often gets sold, or management goals change towards receiving the economic value of timber and harvesting intensively in order to meet budgetary needs of the organization. With forest carbon offsets, these organizations can now generate revenue to help achieve their conservation objectives and ensures the protection of lands that once had no encumbrances to harvest levels. 

Overall, there are many ways in which revenue from carbon offsets can be put back into the forest for positive improvements towards harvesting techniques, structural enhancements, or for increasing the forest footprint. This shows the additional benefits to developing forest carbon projects besides the obvious overarching goal of helping to fight climate change through nature-based solutions.

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