Forests as Climate Solutions?
On an early spring day, forester Charlie Stabolsepszy turned off a logging road and tramped uphill on a mountainside in Vermont’s northern Franklin County. He was headed for a point marked on his GPS, where he'd begin a carbon inventory at the Nature Conservancy’s Burnt Mountain Natural Area.
Charlie carried with him various low-tech and high-tech instruments, including a laser range finder. His task was to measure tree height and diameter, estimate crown size and inventory every woody species on the site. The goal? To tap the potential of forests to combat both our biodiversity and climate crises.
Trees, and by extension forests, are like nature’s thermostat. They regulate our environment by cleaning our air and filtering our water so that all life on earth can thrive. It should then come as no surprise that, as we come to terms with our great climate crisis, the trees, like medical first responders, stand at the ready to heal with one of the world’s oldest and proven natural technologies—the ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their roots, trunks, branches and leaves. By allowing trees to grow bigger, we can store more carbon and safeguard forests that not only provide a safe harbor for our declining bird and wildlife populations but also benefit our human communities by providing clean air and water.
The Nature Conservancy is leading the way to apply natural climate solutions to address climate change.
Here in Vermont, we are unlocking the potential of forests in three ways.
1. VT Carbon Projects
As the second-largest landowner in Vermont, we need to practice what we preach. Therefore, we are protecting and restoring our forests to increase their ability to store carbon. Where possible and practical, we are enrolling eligible properties into the carbon market—a program that compensates landowners for practices that improve carbon storage on their land. Our 5,487-acre Burnt Mountain Natural Area in Northern Vermont is one such project. But most Vermont landowners do not own such large properties so we are working with partners to bring carbon market benefits to the average family forest.
2. Forest Carbon Co-ops Program
The average Vermont family woodlot is 100 acres, leaving most landowners and forests in Vermont locked out of the emerging carbon markets. However, if landowners can band together and bundle the carbon stored across their lands, they can then enter the market as one large property and generate both timber and carbon income. As economic and development pressures mount, helping landowners keep more forests as forest has become a critical piece of the climate puzzle. TNC invested $65,000 in Vermont Land Trust to help catalyze this work on the ground with willing landowners. TNC will now replicate this model in other states to incentivize other forest landowners to manage their forests more sustainably.
3. Family Forest Carbon Program
In Vermont, 3 out of every 5 acres of forest is owned by private landowners. Until recently, few programs have existed that incentivized landowners to take a climate-focused approach to land management. The Nature Conservancy in partnership with the American Forest Foundation is looking to change that with the launch of our Forest Family Carbon Program (FFCP). FFCP compensates landowners who own 30 forested acres or more, to grow older forests or enhance their woodlots for greater carbon storage and climate resiliency. To learn more or enroll in the program, visit: https://familyforestcarbon.org/
Carbon Markets Q&A
Carbon markets are complicated and they evoke many concerns and opinions that also come with addressing climate change. Ultimately, the climate crisis can only be solved by reducing fossil fuel use, but forests also have a role to play in helping address these challenges. We sat down with Vermont Conservation Director, Jim Shallow, to help shed some light on what carbon markets are and what they are not.
All life on earth relies on the ability of plants to use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into sugars that feed their growth. The remaining carbon is stored in roots, stems and leaves. Our soils, wetlands, and forests all store carbon. As we burn more carbon-based fuels to power our society, our greenhouse gas emissions have increased. As more carbon is released into the atmosphere, it acts like a thickening blanket warming our planet. We now need to both reduce our carbon emissions and remove and store the carbon from our atmosphere. Nature can help. By finding a way to conserve more of our natural resources so that we can store more carbon is a win-win in our eyes because in addition to climate change, we are also facing an “abundance crisis” meaning our planet is losing birds, butterflies, wildlife at alarming rates. Nature based solutions such as protecting, and improving management of forests, wetlands and soils can contribute up to a third of the climate solutions needed to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement by 2050.
The common currency in carbon markets is a carbon credit. Carbon credits are measurable, verifiable emission reductions from certified projects. These projects reduce, remove, and/or or avoid greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A carbon credit represents one metric ton of carbon dioxide that has been removed from or not emitted into the atmosphere. When we decided to enroll our Burnt Mountain project into the American Carbon Registry (ACR) carbon program, we had to go through a robust process to determine the amount of carbon that our management would additionally store on our land.
Foresters conducted a carbon inventory over the course of several weeks by establishing a grid of permanent inventory plots on our land. At each inventory plot they measured the species, size and growth rates of the trees in the canopy and understory. This information was used to determine how much carbon in metric tons the trees are storing. All this information was then audited by an independent third party to certify our results. Once the carbon registry reviewed and approved the project, our project was considered viable and carbon credits were issued.
It is important to emphasize that you can’t buy your way out of polluting. Carbon credits alone do not provide a solution to our climate crisis. They only work as a part of a comprehensive emissions reduction plan that looks at all aspects of a business’ operations and supply chains. That is why carbon credits are meant to be sold to businesses like Stio , a Wyoming based outdoor gear company, who has implemented significant emission reduction measures to meet the goal of carbon neutrality. Stio designed low-impact shipping and packaging solutions and incorporated renewable energy to run corporate offices and retail stores. For the impact Stio couldn’t eliminate, they purchased carbon credits from our Burnt Mountain project which is also an investment in the forests that benefit both our human and natural communities. TNC believes that purchasing carbon credits alone is not a sufficient commitment by business to the environment. Using carbon credits as offsets must be a small part of a larger sustainability effort by businesses making operational, production, and service changes to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. These businesses should also be vocal advocates for changing policies and addressing climate change at a society-wide level.
This question speaks to the important concept of additionality. By enrolling land into a carbon project, the project needs to demonstrate that the change in activity resulted in emission reductions or removal above and beyond what might otherwise have occurred in the absence of the incentive provided by the carbon markets. This typically involves a new, long-term commitment to carbon storage, and can play out in several ways.
In the case of our acquisition of Burnt Mountain, the carbon revenue was needed for the project to become viable. Conserving over 5,000 acres is a very expensive proposition and philanthropic dollars often cannot cover these costs. Therefore, the carbon revenue was critical to the success of protecting a large swath of connected forest that had previously been harvested aggressively for years. Now it would be able to grow undisturbed in perpetuity, capturing more carbon as the trees grow.
In other cases, the forest management regime on the land changes to allow for more sustainable practices and greater forest growth. I think there is a perception that conservation means “no-touch” but many conserved lands have forest management plans that allow varying degrees of harvesting. If the harvesting regime changes to capture more growth even on lands that were conserved years ago, this also supports the concept of additionality.
The carbon revenue is going to be able to spur more conservation actions. The fact of the matter is that all the private funding needed to protect both people and nature from environmental degradation doesn’t exist. For the first time in a century, Vermont’s forests are declining. Fragmentation is cutting up parcels and making our forests more vulnerable to disease, invasive plants, and development. As the impacts of climate change increase and our species abundance continues to decrease, we have a responsibility to secure nature’s safety net in the face of a radically changing landscape. Carbon revenue can be an important piece of the puzzle that helps us build on the philanthropic support of our members to protect all that we love about Vermont.
I think it is important for people to know that voluntary carbon markets emerged as a way to try to address climate change issues due to a lack of meaningful policy progress to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and lower society’s carbon emissions.. Businesses can be important drivers in influencing the changes that need to happen. For emissions reductions pledges to be real, companies should first set greenhouse gas emission reduction targets consistent with achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 and develop strategies that prioritize offsets only after introducing practices and changes to avoid, minimize, rectify and reduce emissions internally. Only if some emissions remain after those reductions are underway should businesses examine how offsets may increase their ambitious targets.
Like any new tool or technology, we are learning more with each project and engagement. As a science-based organization, TNC is committed to the development of new, scientifically rigorous methodologies to scale the urgent need to mitigate climate. We also support ongoing improvements of existing carbon market standards as science progresses. We also invite anyone to reach out to us with their questions and we plan on hosting carbon webinars at regular intervals to help people understand the role of carbon markets and how we are using them in Vermont. If you have more questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.