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Cascade Chapter Opposes Forest Carbon Offsets

written by Brian Grunkemeyer, for the Cascade Chapter Energy and Forest Committees

We oppose carbon offsets for forest sequestration, due to concerns about the effectiveness of forest sequestration’s net effects on global warming, the time frames involved, as well as considerations about execution of offset projects.

There are many reasons to preserve and even expand existing forests, such as water quality, animal habitat, and preventing erosion. Forest preservation & health are excellent projects to fund with revenue from a carbon market. But forest offsets, like all offsets, may reduce the market price of emitting carbon without providing real solutions to global warming. Additionally, if forest offsets are allowed from a given region, then the timber industry in that region must be subject to the carbon cap. Until these concerns can be suitably resolved, we should exclude forest offsets from any carbon reduction framework.

We recognize that America’s forests hold more than 20 years worth of American industrial greenhouse gas emissions[1], and this may represent half of the world’s terrestrial carbon sinks. In mature forests, about half of the carbon is sequestered in biomass, while the other is in soil. Harvesting trees too early in their lifecycle may not give soil sequestration a chance to start in earnest, and we suspect this requires a century.

Logging land on a more aggressive schedule may cause the soil to release sequestered carbon, potentially countering any carbon sequestered in new trees planted on that land (in addition to accelerating other environmental problems[2]). Measuring & tracking carbon sequestration in biomass & soil is difficult, and climate change may interfere with our measurements. Conversely, logging old growth forests may be destroying some of the world’s best carbon sinks. This reduction in capacity for Earth’s natural sinks must be accounted for whether forests are lost due to natural or man-made causes.

Recent research[3] tells us that forests may not have a net positive effect on reducing global temperature at middle to high latitudes. While they certainly sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gasses, at higher latitudes they may make the planet’s surface darker, meaning less of the sun’s heat is reflected into space (known as the albedo effect). This lowers the effectiveness of a carbon offset as a direct way of curbing global warming, and this latitude-dependent effect must be factored into any carbon reduction framework.

Our other concerns are with offsets as a mechanism. Since the goal of a carbon reduction program is to change behavior, offsets should not reward business-as-usual procedures. They must pass an “additionality” test, which rewards new behavior. Offsets must also be permanent, and the potential for losing forests due to logging, fire, or disease at some point in their future cannot be discounted. Nature sequesters carbon permanently by producing coal; forests in a destabilized climate may prove significantly less permanent. What percentage of offsets sold must a landowner repurchase if their forest burns down? Forest offsets must also be monitored for accuracy, with a reporting structure for correctly allocating offsets. We do not believe that the science or the marketing mechanisms are currently in place to ensure that forest offsets address these concerns.

If forest offsets can be measured in enough precision to allow forest offsets, then the forest industry must also fall under the carbon cap. Given that western North America’s forests may be the best at sequestering carbon per acre in the world, granting the “trade” part of cap & trade without being subject to the cap is morally bankrupt. Logging companies should be required to buy carbon allowances for any carbon emitted when logging trees, and the worldwide carbon cap should be lowered to reflect any diminished capacity of the biosphere to sequester carbon. We understand that carbon can be temporarily stored in harvested wood products, but given that the wood will decay over time and that there was energy consumed logging & processing the wood then transporting it to its end use, we suspect this may be a net negative effect.

Forests are crucial to our planet’s well-being, but the science does not currently suggest that using changes in forestry practices to get rewarded for reducing global warming is a good idea.

[1]Wilderness.org’s Measuring Forest Carbon: Strengths and Weaknesses of Available Tools. www.wilderness.org/Library/Documents/Measuring-Forest-Carbon.cfm

[2]See the Sierra Club of Canada’s description at: www.sierraclub.ca/national/programs/atmosphere-energy/climate-change/kyoto-forests.shtml

[3]See Dr. Govindasamy Bala’s work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: https://publicaffairs.llnl.gov/news/news_releases/2006/NR-06-12-02.html