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The Past, Present, and Future of Forest Carbon

Hall-2020_headshot.jpgBy Edie Sonne Hall

I was asked to share my insights about forest carbon and climate change since I have worked “in the weeds” on this matter for the last 20 years. While there has been much progress in some areas, such as understanding climate impacts and measuring carbon pools,there are still some arguments about specific policy strategies for the forest sector. These relate more to scale and scope than to a lack of consensus on the overall role of forests and forest products in climate change mitigation. Before explaining these nuances further, I will first provide a brief climate policy history lesson to establish the context for where we are and why. The lesson begins at the global level because greenhouse gas emissions are global.

A global view of carbon

In 1988, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme established the International Panel on ClimateChange (IPCC) to compile and report scientific information on whether climate was changing and why. The IPCC released its first assessment report in1990, which addressed the scientific validity of possible climate change and mitigation measures. With each subsequent release, the IPCC communicated increasing concern of climate change’s impacts (e.g. sea level rise and extreme weather events) and agreement about the level of greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions that are needed to keep climate change in check. The IPCC is working on its 6th Assessment report that is expected to be published in 2022.

The IPCC reports led to the signing of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convention (UNFC-CC) in 1993, with the ultimate objective of “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. "The UNFCC established a Conference of Parties (COP), which agreed to amend the convention as science progressed. These COPs have convened every year, with varying levels of policy consequence.Of note, COP3 formed the Kyoto Protocol that set country specific emission target reductions for the 2008-2012 period. In 2015, COP21 formed the Paris Agreement, which allowed each country to submit their own plan for emissions reductions.

The US and carbon

The US, although a signer of the UNFCCC, famously never ratified the Kyoto Protocol due to disagreements about US reduction targets relative to countries such as China and India.Climate change was instead discussed as a domestic issue, and momentum grew throughout the mid-2000s to enact carbon policy both at the national and state level. In 2006, California enacted its Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), which required the state to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 through a series of complementary policies, the largest of which was a cap and trade bill. A national cap and trade bill was expected (and preferred to state-only bills for many business), but a possible legislative solution ended in 2009 when cap and trade became known as “cap and tax.” This set off work under the Obama administration through EPA and the development of the Clean Power Plan, which has since been repealed under theTrump administration.

The intersection of policy and forestry

The IPCC consensus reports clearly communicates the complexity of the land-atmosphere carbon dioxide two-way flux. Forests remove carbondioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, but they also release it upon decay or combustion, and these actions can either be natural or human caused. Moreover, scientists have increasingly recognized the impact that a changing climate is and will have on forest growth, forest health, and forest disturbances, which can be both positive and negative.

In their 2019 report, the IPCC advised that,“Sustainable forest mangement aimed at providing timber, fiber, biomass, non-timber resources and other ecosystem functions and services, can lower GHG emissions and can contribute to adaptation.” In its 2016 report, the international Food and Agriculture Organization underscored the importance of forests by writing,“Forests are at the heart ofthe transition to low-carbon economies. Forests and forest products have a key role to play in mitigation and adaptation, not only because of their double role as sink and source of emissions, but also through the potential for wider use of wood products to displace more fossil fuel intense product. Indeed, a virtuous cycle can be enacted in which forests increase removals of carbon from the atmosphere while sustainable forest management and forest products contribute to enhanced livelihoods and al ower carbon footprint.” These reports provide clear consen sus on the importance of both forests and forest products in climate change mitigation.

Forest carbon policy in action

There are two major policy arcs that have brought forests and forestry into the heart of discussions over the last 20 years. The first relates to finding ways that forests can be used to counterbalance emissions from the industrial sector, otherwise known as “off-setting.” Programs have been difficult to design in the land sector because the “two-way” street related to the biogenic carbon cycle means that potential reversibility needs to be accounted for (the permanence issue).

“Additionality” (showing that the action was “additional” to a business-as-usual baseline) and leakage (making sure that the project didn’t shift reversals from land elsewhere) also have to be wrestled with in order to provide assurance that the offset is of equal value to the claim by the offset purchaser. The Kyoto Protocol tackled off-sets through the Clean Development Mechanism, which developed offset protocols related to different emission reduction activities in developing countries. All landsector protocols were only issued temporary credits, which had little value in the marketplace. Voluntary offset programs, including CAR (Climate ActionReserve) and VCS (Verified Carbon Standard), paved the way to make forest protocols account for permanence, through either a 100-year liability(CAR) or a permanence risk buffer reduction (VCS). California adapted the CAR protocol when their AirResources Board approved their Forest Offset Protocol; to date, over 150 million forest offset credits have been issued under this protocol in the United States.

Discussions are now underway in both voluntary and compliance markets on how to reduce measurement and monitoring costs, and improve flexibility for landowners—especially on smaller project sizes—without compromising climate offset integrity.There are also increasing discussions and tension around whether offset projects at the landscape scale would impact harvest levels; how this could impact mill infrastructure; and, ultimately, climate emissions, if there is substitution to other materials.

The second major policy arc impacting forests relates to bioenergy and how these emissions should be treated relative to fossil fuels. Beginning in the1990s, in its Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry report, the IPCCset the guidelines for how countries should report their annual GHG emissions. These guidelines require countries to report carbon stock changes inthe land-sector, there by accounting for harvest as a release to the atmosphere.

This accounting convention means that biomass combustion is not reported in the energy sector—otherwise that would be double counting. Problems arose when Europe adopted strategies to increase use of biofuel with palm oil sourced from plantations on recently converted forestland in Indonesia. Due to policy loopholes (not accounting loopholes), Indonesia, as a developingcountry, was not “on the hook” for emissions from carbon reductions on land and neither was Europe. Growing concern on using potentially unsustainable biomass as a source of energy made its way to the US and came to a head during the crafting of the Clean Power Plan with lots of discussions on what is “carbon neutrality” and how can it be assessed.

Forest carbon is business and personal

All of what I just discussed is the foundation for policy-level forest carbon discussions. However, for most foresters or natural resource professionals, you work with forest carbon at the forest level, and that is often how the discussions are focused.

The forestry and forest products sectors have six basic strategies to reduce GHG emissions. They can increase sequestration by 1) increasing forest area; 2) increasing carbon stocks in existing forests; and 3) increasing the carbon storage pool in wood products. They can also reduce emissions (either biogenic or fossil) into the atmosphere by 1) reducing emissions from forest land conversion, fire, or degradation; 2) reducing fossil fuel emissions by using biomass for energy; and 3) substituting wood products for more energy-intensive materials.

These strategies are broad generalizations and do not apply to each forest equally. And in the PNW we still have seemingly conflicting scientific information on both the role of woodproducts and harvesting and the impact of fire emissions with varying levels of forest management. After wrestling between the science and policy world in forest carbon discussions, I have learned that it is helpful first to ask these three questions when discussing forests and carbon:

  • What is the question? What are you trying to solve and in what context?

This approach seems straightforward, but it determines the sand box with which you are playing in when having these discussions. Are you trying to maximize carbon in the forest or minimum carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? The conflicting information arising from scientific studies is due to the formation of the question, which then determines your scope and functional unit (what you are comparing).

  • Do we have the same understanding of the words we are using?

Words matter, and they mean different things to different people. For example, there are at least four different ways to define “carbon neutrality.” A “removal” means what is taken off the site (e.g. harvest) in FIA terms, or what is taken out of the atmosphere in carbon target setting and standards terms. “Embodied carbon” is actually the emissions that are released in producing a product; the carbon that is physically stored in a wood product is referred to as “embedded carbon”. I could go on and on and on. Prior to starting a discussion, make sure everyone has a common understanding of the terms that are being used. This will save many instances of confusion and remove one of the hidden, but common, barriers to a potential consensus.

  • What is the perspective of each stakeholder?

This determines the initial lens through which they perceive the problem and the solution and is important when seeking common ground. For example, I have first hand knowledge that a forest containing trees that are grown and harvested to make forest products can also be a beautiful, biodiversity packed gem that remains this way decade after decade (I am a 4th generation tree farmer and have worked for timber companies). I understand that there can be “natural” impacts to forest health and regeneration, both wildlife and wildfire induced (I grew up in the northeastern US where there is an overabundance of deer, and I own property in eastern Washington that suffered damage from the wildfires in 2015). I also value recreation, having hiked the Appalachian Trail, and I recognize that while trees are a renewable resource, there are some forests that are irreplaceable.

You may be in a room with a stakeholder who grew up witnessing “ugly” clearcuts destroy their favorite hiking trails or who live in an area where high-grading is common. Or whose teacher preached to never print paper because you are “killing a tree”. Who knows! We are never going to see eye to eye on what should be done on ALL lands but what do we have in common? We likely both want to reduce GHG and increase forest health and resiliency. I bet we both want to use more renewable resources and less non-renewable too. Often forest carbon policy discussions stalemate because the elephant in the room (should you harvest more or less?) kicks everyone back to their instinctive corners. However, there are so many small improvements that can be made in forest management that would help at a large scale. Help move these forward instead.

Hopefully, this piece has provided some context on where we are in the forest carbon discussions and why. As an optimist, I believe that momentum is building toward action on shared goals to reduce GHG emissions and increase forest health and resiliency. With everyone working together we can have more forests, more forest products, and more stored carbon.

Edie Sonne Hall, an SAF member, is the founder and principal at ThreeTrees Consulting, a consulting firm that specializes in bridging the gap between carbon science and policy and management. She can be reached at

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