1. What if something happens to the trees and the carbon is no longer stored?
First, each project is assessed for its own unique risk of fire, pests or disease. Every project in a program then contributes a portion of its credits to a “buffer pool” which acts like a group insurance policy for all. Over time, these group insurance policies have grown to be well in excess of the largest projects in every major forest carbon program, so if something catastrophic does happen, abundant credits are available to make the environment whole again. Furthermore, stout penalties are imposed on any intentional over-harvesting of trees, and legally-binding agreements that will last for multiple generations into the future are put in place to protect the forestland from such activities.
2. When forest landowners earn credits, what are they doing that goes above and beyond business as usual?
Landowners earn carbon credits by making long-term commitments to maintain timber stocks above what’s common practice for their region. Restricting future harvesting is a huge improvement to any management plan, hence the name, “Improved Forest Management.” Landowners often spend years growing their forests to maximize timber values at the time of an eventual harvest. Sometimes, ensuring that growth and conservation actually continue is the best change they can make for the environment. Even conservation-minded landowners face immense financial pressure to capitalize on the ever-increasing timber values on their land. Electing to forgo timber revenue they’ve been working toward for a long time or may need in the future in exchange for carbon revenue is never a decision to be taken lightly. The unfortunate reality is that many elect to keep doing what they know best: harvesting aggressively, growing trees for an eventual harvest or selling the land for its innate timber values.
3. How do you accurately measure how much carbon is stored in the trees?
To start, we go out into the forest and measure thousands of trees. The work we do out there is surprisingly extensive. We record the things you would naturally think of like species, diameter and height, and we also carefully evaluate each tree’s health and fitness for timber markets because we must know how much carbon would be released if each were harvested. Our data is so reliable that even NASA has used it to check the accuracy of its own remote sensing technology! We input these field measurements into industry-standard, published and peer-reviewed equations and then use USDA Forest Service models to calculate carbon storage over time. These models are incredibly detailed and calibrated for each tree to account for subtle differences in productivity, soil, elevation and ecoregion. They also compensate for any uncertainty from the field by applying conservative deductions.
4. What’s stopping the landowner next door from cutting down their forest to meet timber demand?
This is a real concern and one that has to be addressed. The idea is called leakage: the possible increase in greenhouse gas emissions outside of a project’s area resulting from the decrease of emissions inside the project’s area. For forestry, this means a potential increase in harvests outside of the protected area due to demand for wood products. Highly conservative deductions are therefore taken from the calculated emission reductions on the assumption that some leakage will occur. Most of our projects experience a 40% deduction just in case leakage actually occurs. It’s the way carbon accounting standards provide extra insurance that credits reflect the real benefits to the climate, including the risk that forests outside the project area could be harvested in response to increased timber demand. Leakage deductions aren’t set in stone but are reevaluated periodically to reflect harvesting and market changes over a project’s lifetime.
5. Which standard is the highest quality for forest carbon offsets?
There are dozens of standards that certify forest carbon offsets. Many of them are well-established, with over a decade of proven track records. Some newcomers have recently entered the space as well, bringing technology and efficiencies that are innovative but remain untested. We’re proud to develop our forest carbon projects under three proven, nonprofit-managed standards: American Carbon Registry, Verra and the Climate Action Reserve. Tried and true programs like these include rigorous criteria to address critical issues like permanence, additionality and leakage. Furthermore, each employs third-party, public, transparent registries to track each credit and ensure it’s fully accounted for, only once. While the quality between established standards is relatively interchangeable, purchasers should be cautious about programs that do not require independent auditing and tracking mechanisms.