Monday, October 19, 2009

The potential and risks of Forest-based carbon offsets: part 1 - the Carbon Canopy

This week we're issuing a 3-part series that will cover one of the most interesting issues in the green market.

It's getting more and more attention (also on this blog) as a promising way to deal with global warming under the cap and trade scheme. At the same time, it is also the center of a heated debate between organizations, companies and others on its legitimacy and effectiveness.

Yes, we're talking about forest-based carbon offsets. Or in other words,
enabling landowners who keep their trees standing and not cut them down, or selectively log their forests to earn carbon credits they can trade on the open market. Such a trading system does not exist yet and it's part of legislation before Congress, as well as one of the issues to be discussed on global level in Copenhagen in December.

Today we'll talk about the Carbon Canopy, which according to their website, "
seeks to establish a new model to support landowners who expand protection, restoration and conservation of their forests and certify management practices to the high standards of FSC certification. The Carbon Canopy is focused initially on building a credible carbon market model for landowners in the Southern US. "

The group includes timber and paper supply companies, such as
Domtar Corporation, Columbia Forest Products and Staples, as well as environmental NGOs such as the Dogwood Alliance, Rainforest Alliance, the Forest Stewardship Council and our friends at the Green Press Initiative.

The coalition starts a pilot project in South U.S. offering what they see as a win-win model: "Private landowners receive revenue for the ecological benefits their forests provide. Forest product manufacturers receive a stable supply of FSC certified wood to use in their products. In turn, large paper and wood end-users and retailers are able to offer FSC certified products to reduce their environmental impacts. And all of us, including our future generations, will benefit from forests that not only support a more stable climate but also biodiversity and watershed protection."

I like this model. It does a good use in the cap and trade mechanism and everybody wins. It also deals with a severe issue - according to the Washington Post, "ninety percent of forests in the South, which ranks as the largest paper and wood-producing region in the world, is privately owned. Some farmers in the region still clear cut their forests, or convert them to pine plantations that are fast-growing but less environmentally beneficial."

Now, there are some that question the concept like Greenpeace. Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for Greenpeace, praised on the Washington Post the idea of managing forests according to the Forest Stewardship Council's standards, but added, "We also believe that forest offsets should not be used in a compliance carbon market."

Still, I think that there's something right in providing incentives to keep trees alive. We discussed it many times in the past and we always get to the same conclusion: no matter how many flows this system has, it's the most realistic way to fight deforestation.

The Carbon Canopy explains it very clearly on their website: "Currently, forest landowners do not have access to viable roadmaps or sufficient economic incentives to help them conserve, restore and/or manage working forests to a high environmental standard. The potential of earning income from forest carbon sequestration could provide incentive for private landowners to enhance forest protection, restoration and conservation."

There are of course issues that shouldn't be ignored like the validity of carbon offsetting in general and forest-based ones specifically (how do you measure them? are they sustainable? what happens in a case of a fire where the whole forest is burned?) as well as their ability to actually reduce emissions.

The later issue is a very important one, as not matter how good you do carbon offsetting, if you eventually didn't reduce emissions then it's just not the right way. The Carbon Canopy doesn't ignore this question and I actually liked what they had to say about it:

"Carbon offsets are often criticized as serving as a crutch for polluters who prefer to buy their way out of having to implement true carbon emission reductions. Because the Carbon Canopy’s members strongly believe in the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before and alongside of purchasing and retiring offsets to compensate for emissions that can’t be reduce, we seek to work with corporations that are committed to transparency in reporting and demonstrate real leadership in developing sustainable conservation models to significantly reduce their operational and supply chain climate impacts."

I don't know what the results of this pilot will be and neither the Carbon Canopy, but it looks like they know what they're doing, dealing openly with difficult questions and issues and moving forward to find the right model that will both save our forests, fight global warming and will be worthwhile to all sides involved.

On the second part of our series we'll discuss some of the problems that were found in another pilot of forest-based carbon offsets, this time in Bolivia.

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: promoting sustainable reading!