When Jeff Schnurr returned to Canada after travelling the world, he wondered if it was possible to encourage people to grow more forests than they cut down. He’d spent a considerable amount of time on the island of Pemba off the coast of Tanzania, helping its population reforest its land. In 2008 the locals had realized that if they didn’t take action soon, their island would be completely deforested. Soils would become unworkable, freshwater would be scarce, and employment for the islanders would be difficult to come by. His experience helping reforest Pemba made him realize the value of keeping trees in the ground.
He started looking around his home province of New Brunswick for ideas and met Clark Phillips and Susan Tyler, who’d been actively managing their forest of 100 acres since the 1970s. They were now looking to retire, but they were resistant to sell to their neighbours, as they were clear-cut loggers. The amazing thing about their forest was that they had managed it so well that it was the age of a 60-year-old forest — twice as old as it actually was — holding significantly more carbon in its trees than a younger forest and therefore, more highly valued.
I was curious to know how a forest could age so rapidly, so Jeff explained, “Fast growing trees like field spruce and white pine, grow up in the first few years creating a shade canopy under which the slower growing trees such as oak, maple, and hemlock start to grow. In a forest left naturally, it takes a while for these slower growing trees to get out from under the faster-growing ones, but once they do, they take off. In a managed forest, we clear the canopy earlier so the slower growing trees have access to light and can grow faster.” These slow growing trees store far more carbon in them than their scraggly, fast growing counterparts. The cleared trees are sold to either a local sawmill or a pulp and paper mill, depending on where the market is.
What makes this model special is the fact that the trees are valued for the carbon they store, rather than for the wood they produce. As carbon markets develop, Jeff hopes this business model will encourage woodlot owners to keep their trees in the ground instead of clear-cutting them. To value that carbon, Jeff and the team at Community Forests International
set out to come up with a way to quantify and value that carbon, where like-minded companies could buy carbon credits.
Valuing Stored Carbon
Buying carbon offsets has always been a contentious issue for companies and government bodies looking to achieve carbon neutral status in their operations. Critics say that it’s too tempting to use carbon offsets instead of addressing your in-house carbon emissions and therefore you’re not tackling the real issue. Then there’s the flipside where some carbon offset companies are said to be offering “questionable” offsets (see this David Suzuki article for more details). As a carbon offset purchaser, it can be difficult to know where to purchase them from. Jeff wanted to make sure that CFI was as transparent as possible so that purchasers could be confident that the carbon offsets they purchased were actual offsets and not just carbon storage that would be there anyway. They are enrolled in the Chain of Custody program through Forest Stewardship Council, and their program is audited by the New Brunswick Community Land Trust.
CFI looks at what a typical forest’s carbon storage of the same age and same geographical location and uses that as a baseline carbon number to start valuing its carbon storage. With baseline carbon storage established they do site visits and aerial visits of their own forest. Through density evaluations, they can accurately assess the amount of additional carbon their forest stores. It’s this excess carbon that companies are purchasing. As the forest grows, more carbon is stored in the trees, the forest becomes more valuable.
Jeff’s goal is to demonstrate that storing and selling carbon makes keeping trees in the ground and selective cutting more financially viable. I asked him why most forestry companies don’t do what he does. Jeff admitted that it’s an expensive way to manage a forest. “It wouldn’t be possible to operate a typical forest this way.” Traditional forests are clear cut and left to regenerate over a 60 year period. They are pretty much left to their own devices.” Jeff said that by contrast, their forests have evaluators in them every year. “We take a look at what’s going on, how much more carbon is being stored, which trees can come down.” CFI also values its stand on a 100-year life cycle versus the typical 60-year cycle.
What does the future look like?
CFI aims to demonstrate the value in keeping trees in the ground and actively managing a forest. In places where there are regulated carbon markets, the chances for this type of system to flourish is greater. With the Canadian government announcing its new carbon pricing policy to be implemented by 2018, all provinces will be looking at different carbon storage solutions providing incentives for foresters to preserve trees instead of cutting them. When carbon is monetized, growing trees will become a valuable practice, and learning how to store carbon faster will be appealing to farmers. “There are over 40,000 private woodlot owners in New Brunswick. We’re hoping that the smaller producers will see value in actively managing their forests to store carbon rather than clear cutting full sections at a time.”
Jeff’s hope is that even the larger forestry companies will see value in actively managing their stock and leaving as much in the ground as possible to provide carbon offsets for those who need it.
CFI provides a new business model for valuing stored carbon. As Canada seeks to meet its carbon reduction commitments it agreed to at COP 21, CFI’s model becomes timely, relevant and financially viable in a carbon constrained environment.
Jeff Schnurr presented “Strengthening Symbiotic Flows: Valuing Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital” at the Green Building Festival in Toronto in September, 2016.