Climate tech is having its moment. Nature, the world’s original climate technology- with its ability to draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in roots, soils, branches, etc. - is no exception. Science tells us that nature can provide more than one third of needed greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, playing a critical role in the overall climate change solution set. The market is revving up to drive these nature-based solutions to scale with corporate net zero commitments, global initiatives, governments, and more all signalling support for nature-based carbon removal. Trees are officially in.
But why choose nature versus the other carbon removal solutions out there? One simple answer: action now matters. Unlike engineered removal solutions, nature is our only immediately available, readily deployable, scalable option. We need investment in engineered solutions. However, experts think it will be years before the technology is cost-effective, let alone permitted and built at scale. We don’t have years to start taking action in the climate crisis. In this critical decade for climate, we must do as much as we can as soon as we can to reduce emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Every year counts in avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.
At the same time, concerns around the validity of nature-based offsets abound. There are real issues related to additionality, leakage, and permanence that need to be addressed. Luckily, we now have the tools - namely, better data and technology - to tackle these issues head-on and can learn from what’s worked and what hasn’t.
So how do you tell the difference between a good forest carbon project and one that needs improvement? We at SilviaTerra use the RISE framework - laid out in our white paper on forest carbon - to guide our own thinking about how to evaluate forest carbon projects. In this post, I’ll talk about the R and the I - meaning, whether a project creates Real and Immediate impact.
First and foremost, because offsets are balancing out real emissions, we need to ensure that the offsets represent real removals or reductions. Co-benefits such as biodiversity protection and improving livelihoods are important but if the climate impact isn’t there, we shouldn’t be spending climate dollars on that project. Consider the following to make sure a forest carbon project leads to real results:
Additionality: Check your baseline
Forest carbon projects evaluate a baseline or “business as usual” case to determine whether the action you’re paying for would have happened in the absence of your investment. In improved forest management projects, harvest risk varies from acre to acre depending on local economic conditions such as timber prices and proximity to mills and transportation networks. Traditional forest carbon projects have typically assessed regional baselines that miss the nuance of an individual acre. It’s like using a regional average credit score to assess individual credit risk. Understand how projects you invest in estimate this baseline counterfactual to ensure it reflects the acre-level reality.
Leakage: Eliminate as much as you can and account for the rest
Leakage affects all forest carbon projects to different degrees. Look out for two types of leakage when considering projects: activity shifting leakage and market shifting leakage. Project set-up can eliminate activity shifting leakage - when the forest owner shifts harvesting activity from one part of their property to another - by requiring that a landowner enroll their full property. Projects typically account for market shifting leakage by applying a standard leakage deduction factor. We know, however, that leakage will differ depending on the local and international economic context. Again, similar to additionality, understand whether and how the project developer is assessing how leakage risk may uniquely affect that project.
Given there’s a time value to acting on climate change, we should look for forest carbon projects that provide immediate results. By thinking about permanence as equivalent impact as opposed to project duration, we can ensure we get the full climate impact we’ve paid for, today. In addition, investing in improved forest management or forest protection to grow bigger, more carbon rich trees provides a greater impact on the climate today than planting trees.
Permanence: Focus on impact
We care about permanence because we care about getting the climate impact we’re paying for. We expect that the 1 metric ton of CO2e we purchase will balance out the impact of an emission elsewhere. With traditional forest carbon projects, we’re paying upfront for a continuous stream of impact 20, 40, and 100 years into the future. The reality is, however, that no forest carbon project is permanent. Forests and our planet are in a constant state of change. Innovative approaches to carbon accounting, like SilviaTerra’s ton-year methodology rooted in the concept of Global Warming Potential (GWP), can ensure that we get the present value, equivalent impact of 100-years of carbon sequestration in one year, eliminating the concern that multigenerational contracts will not pan out in the future or natural processes like fires will reverse the climate impact.
Afforestation/reforestation versus improved forest management and protection
In this critical decade for climate change, it's also critical to consider how to get the biggest bang for your offset buck. Planting trees does remove carbon from the atmosphere but it takes years until those trees are operating at their greatest carbon capturing potential. Mature forests at risk of harvest or deforestation are sequestering more carbon per year than newly planted forests, in addition to the critical biodiversity and other co-benefits they provide. By focusing on forest protection and improved forest management, you ensure that carbon is not released into the atmosphere in addition to drawing more carbon out of the atmosphere than a sapling would in the same time period.
In this critical decade for climate action, nature-based solutions are a readily available and immediate option for reducing emissions and removing carbon. If we do it right, we can harness nature’s tech for maximum impact at a time where every year counts.
To read more about how we at SilviaTerra think about forest carbon, check out our white paper.
In my next blog post, I’ll dig into S and E part of our RISE framework to discuss how to drive Scalable and Efficient climate impact.