Here is the third and final installment of responses from conference presenters Nate Gorence and John Gunn to your questions at the Forest Values/Carbon Market Conference in Cloquet.
Thank you Nate and John for helping inform our discussion of these timely issues. And thanks as well to those of you who joined in.
It is our purpose at Vital Forests/Vital Communities to catalyze and support exactly this sort of informed discussion of policy and practices that impact the economic, environmental and social well-being of forest-dependent communities and the forests on which they depend.
12. Have there been studies to estimate which sequesters more carbon over time, an intensive of managed forest vs. an old Growth Forest?
Gunn: There is a growing body of work here. The assumption has been that old growth forests are carbon sources or at best, neutral. This assumption was largely based on a single site that looked at ten year period of net primary productivity, and some other studies in New Hampshire that measured biomass accumulation. A significant study recently published in the journal Nature reviewed carbon dioxide flux data from more than 500 temperate and boreal forests and found that older forests tend to continue operating as a net carbon sink for centuries. This has significant implications for how we think about the role of older forests. Dr. Bowyer presented some models of what a given stand might be capable of storing if long-lived wood products and product substitution were considered. It is crucial that we evaluate this kind of scenario using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methods to understand the implications of management vs. leaving it alone. These LCA studies require significant amounts of assumption – and generally find that it takes a number of rotations before the carbon benefit of wood storage in products proves to be a benefit over no management at all. How confident are we that the solid wood manufacturing infrastructure will be around in 25 years? 50 years? If we embark on a carbon mitigation strategy that relies on the assumptions of markets staying available, and they go away, what has the atmosphere gained? Is it the best precautionary approach to reserve forests from management if our only objective is carbon sequestration? These are the questions we need to continue to ask. I see these as real issues to consider as we develop policy and market mechanisms that may have unintended consequences.
13. How can we ensure that the benefits of carbon markets are distributed appropriately/ equitably? We must focus around this question in order for Carbon Market to gain effectiveness and meaning for MN citizens. I would argue that we must address small ownerships, subsistence practices and rural poverty. Please comment.
Gunn: I don’t think carbon markets need to be equitable. It is fundamentally about reducing atmospheric carbon, not forest conservation or rural poverty alleviation. Carbon markets are the wrong tool for these issues.
14. How can the VCS system’s reward for less intensive management be justified, given the carbon sequestration and storage advantages of younger, faster growing forests and forest product sequestration, substitution for fossil fuels, and short-term, long-term product storage?
Gunn: To continue the theme from Question 8 above, in my mind the jury is still out on the advantages of product storage and substitution. VCS is open to other mechanisms to define acceptable management – but it still needs to meet the requirements of additionality that are the core of the standard. All offset types considered under VCS must meet the same test of additionality.
The concept of “fast-growing” forests has to be tempered with calculation of carbon storage. Fast-growing and small trees cannot compete with an undisturbed and complex 200 year old stand. If 80% of the fast-growing wood is being turned into paper (then sitting in a landfill emitting methane, which as Dr. Frelich pointed out is 21 times worse than CO2), the carbon advantage doesn’t exist. LCA studies based on realistic assumptions are critical to promoting the type of forest management that does indeed create a carbon benefit.
Product substitution also creates uneasiness for me. As was brought up at the meeting, reducing consumption is fundamental. So, until we reduce consumption of steel and concrete products, it is difficult to assume that the creation of a stick of lumber is substituting directly for these other materials. We shouldn’t give credit for substitution unless we can prove in some manner that there is a reduction in the use of other materials.
15. It seems that there are differences in values and policies between CCX, California and East Coast- Carbon Credit Markets. Is there a movement to standardize contracts, offsets, values and policies of carbon market aggregations and carbon credit markets?
Gunn: There is an interesting parallel to be made here with the development of forest certification systems. I think it has been necessary for the development of multiple carbon standards in order to fully understand the complexity of forest carbon and how best to address some of the issues like additionality and leakage. The USDA has created an Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets; I believe one of the mandates of this office will be to work on standardization. I think there will be a dichotomy between standards in voluntary and regulatory markets, and that is probably a good thing. Forests are more likely to play a more prominent role in the voluntary side.
16. How many tons/year of carbon does an “average” acre of forested land sequester?
Gunn: This will vary widely depending on geographic region, forest type, age, and site index. A rule of thumb for foresters would be to think about growth rates – e.g., 0.5 cord/acre/year and convert to merchantable tons. A merchantable ton is roughly 50% carbon by weight. Then, multiply by 3.667 to get a carbon dioxide equivalent value (the unit that is traded on most markets). The Carbon On-Line Estimator is a quick and dirty way to look at different forest types at different ages and what could be expected in an even-aged scenario. Visit: http://ncasi.uml.edu/COLE/cole.html. The US Forest Service has a number of tools available as well: http://nrs.fs.fed.us/carbon/tools/
17. Carbon Credits seem to be based on sophisticated models crunching imprecise data- is there a better, simpler way to achieve the objectives? Ex.- Managed Forest= x per acre, prairie restoration= x per acre, etc. (Regional variations)
Gunn: In the end, it may be that the imprecision is what excludes managed forest carbon from playing a significant role in carbon offset markets that contain offset categories that have a great deal more precision associated with their measurement. As I suggested in Question 6 above, we need to pursue other mechanisms outside of offset markets that promote the types of practices that increase carbon storage. Programs like EQIP and WHIP provide solid examples of how we might create incentives for beneficial practices, without having to worry whether it was 1 ton or 1.2 tons of carbon being sequestered. For example, when a landowner is paid for a practice that is supposed to create habitat for ruffed grouse, we don’t care if 3 or 4 broods are actually generated on the parcel – we have confidence that the practices are generally good and the outcome is generally what we want. We can do the same with forest carbon on a large scale if the source of money is available. It is likely that if national climate legislation doesn’t include forest offsets directly, an alternate method will proposed that isn’t as concerned about precision.