Forest-Based Carbon Sequestration: Converting Private Timberlands to Public Forestlands
Developing a Strategy which Addresses Global Climate Change, Forest Conservation, Biodiversity Loss, Watershed Health and Other Public Purposes
By Andy Kerr
After fossil fuel emission reductions, a significant component of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation is the sequestration of the carbon in natural ecosystems. In addition to ameliorating global warming, numerous collateral benefits, including conserving and restoring forest biodiversity and watershed health, would also occur.
(S)ince 1860 approximately 165 and 150 [billion] t C have been emitted to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and deforestation respect(ively).
Paul Alaback, Ph.D., "Logging of Temperate Rainforests and the Green House effect: Ecological Factors to Consider," Pacific Northwest Research Station, US Forest Service, Juneau, 1989
Many special interests are advancing their special interest as the best way to sequester atmospheric carbon. All foresters, be they the brown kind who just want to keep cutting it down, or the green kind who want to practice "sustainable" forestry, are advocating for sequestration moneys to subsidize their general aims (while this latter aim may be much more noble, it needs to be tested and compared with the proposal below).
Conservationists who want to permanently protect forests from logging are behind in advancing our preferred method for carbon sequestration.
Many public relations smoke screens are being advanced by electric utilities, such as buying the cutting rights to a tiny bit of tropical forest, or simply paying for the replanting of a clearcut in the US. In either case, the utility takes the carbon "credit," because carbon was stored during the life of the power plant. That the trees are logged (and carbon is released to the atmosphere) after plant amortization is irrelevant in their calculations.
Ecosystem preservation/restoration environmentalists can make a strong case for permanent natural carbon storage, in the form of forest preservation and restoration, but it must be made soon if we are to have any effect on the Kyoto Protocol implementation.
Problem One: CO2 Emissions
Global warming is a scientifically accepted fact. Several factors contribute, but the most significant are the emission of the "greenhouse" gases, the most prevalent being carbon dioxide. While much of today's CO2 emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels, a significant portion comes from the loss of forests. Much of the CO2 that has been building in the atmosphere comes from historic deforestation since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
To first stabilize CO2 emissions, dramatic reductions in fossil fuel consumption are necessary. Two-thirds of emissions from fossil fuel combustion can be eliminated using off-the-shelf conservation and production technologies in a cost-effective manner.
This last one-third of fossil fuel-based carbon emissions that is most problematic. First we must convert to annual bio-based fuels that sequester carbon at the same rate as they are produced. Second, we must mitigate for the continued emission of CO2 from fossil fuels (carbon that has been sequestered for millions of years). How this mitigation is done remains to be seen. In essence the emitter will pay to sequester carbon elsewhere equal to the amount emitted elsewhere.
Problem Two: Loss of Forests
The other major contributor of carbon into the atmosphere is the loss of forests.
Net emissions of gases that cause global warming rose by 20 percent in the US from 1990 to 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a draft report. Total US emissions of such heat-trapping gases as carbon dioxide rose only 10 percent over the period, but forests and other natural absorbers of carbon gases reportedly decreased by 33 percent, thus accounting for the net increase. (5-31-98 Christian Science Monitor)
Obviously, the loss of forests not only contributes to global climate change, but to losses in biodiversity, watershed, recreation and other related values.
Forests are being lost at a record rate, both globally and domestically. Most analyses consider forest loss in land area. Rather than area (acres), a more appropriate measure of forest loss is volume or biomass (tons of carbon). Forest cover did not decrease 33% in the US from 1990 to 1996, but forest volume did.
The Natural Solution for Carbon Sequestration
While the major way to address CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere will—first and foremost—be to reduce emissions from automobiles, power plants and other sources, there is a major role for carbon sequestration. While some technical approaches are being sought, the matter of what to do with the captured carbon is problematic.
Japan is experimenting with injecting CO2 into the ocean and the Europeans are considering injecting it into aquifers. Not surprisingly, the United States is doing little in the area of carbon sequestration. While the nation spends more than $1.6 billion annually studying global warming, studies on CO2 removal receive a little more than $1 million.
The most effective capture and storage method already exists: natural ecosystems.
Most healthy, natural ecosystems store massive amounts of carbon. Forests are the most obvious example. It is not obvious to most that the majority of the carbon in a healthy forest is stored, not as tree trunks, but in branches and needles or leaves, and below ground in the roots and soil.
Healthy grasslands (again, most of the carbon is stored below ground) and wetlands also store vast amounts of carbon.
The Forest Carbon Cycle
Games are played by timber industry (which must be challenged: they emphasize only the rate of annual sequestration. In a forest cycle, the maximum amount of carbon removed from the air annually is during the early part of the cycle (0-80 years for Douglas-fir, for example). This is why the timber industry and their congressional allies advocate—in the name of atmospheric carbon sequestration—logging old growth forests and replacing them with fast-growing tree plantations.
In fact, an old growth forest stores massive amounts of carbon, the majority of which is below ground, out of sight. A good portion of the remainder is in the boles of the trees, but a highly significant amount is in the small branches, and leaves or needles. The timber industry ignores the loss due to logging of long-stored carbon in its equation.
The timber industry touts that logging results in the storage of carbon in long-lived wood products. This is partly true, but much of the log (forgetting, for a moment, the massive loss of carbon associated with decaying tree matter left in the woods, or in the ground) ends up in the atmosphere in a relatively short time. Only a fraction of a log ends up as lumber or other long-lived wood products and less than that goes to uses that don't soon end up in landfills or are burned (paper, for example).
If one looks at the forest carbon cycle over time, clearly the most carbon is stored for the longest time in old growth forests (store). In their later centuries, the annual rate of carbon sequestration (sink) in a particular stand is low, but the annual rate of decay (source) is lower. The total amount of carbon sequestered (store) remains quite high.
The key is to consider forest-based carbon sequestration at a landscape level. Not only is the appropriate scale to make a material difference in global climate change, it is the proper scale to model through time. At the individual stand level, the fluctuation of carbon over time can be significant. But at a large enough landscape level, the individual fluctuations are smoothed out and counterbalanced. The net result is that highly significant amounts of carbon are safely stored for very long periods of time.
There have been several responses to the forest-atmosphere connection; some bogus and some sincere.
US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has proposed financial incentives to the timber industry to grow trees a little longer in the name of removing carbon from the atmosphere. His (and most environmentalists) shallow understanding of forest carbon cycles, coupled with an innate political desire to please all, has driven him to promote such as a win-win solution.
Much more ecologically credible is the effort by the Pacific Forest Trust that is attempting to establish a system that quantifies and certifies a system of legitimate carbon sequestration attributable to longer timber rotations on private lands. They propose a market in which carbon emitters (coal power plants for example) pay carbon sequesters (tree farmers) to store carbon. While this approach may have some ecological legitimacy, economically, the approach of permanent forest acquisition may be more rational than paying to lengthen timber rotations (see below).
The US delegation to the Kyoto Protocol was very warm to carbon sinks as a way to not have to reduce emissions of carbon from fossil fuel combustion. Their zeal is based on a shallow understanding of forest cycles and because the domestic political situation disfavors emissions reductions.
As a result, the Kyoto Protocol addresses forest-based carbon sequestration quite bizarrely. It only allows the counting of afforestation, deforestation and reforestation since 1990. It does not consider the massive carbon sinks of forested landscapes (presently standing forest or restorable areas). Presently, the Kyoto Protocol provisions on forest sinks and sources may result in perverse actions that actually contribute to global warming. (The protocol does not even consider the a third component: stores. Nonetheless, a strong scientific case can be made that the best way to sequester very significant amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere—and to keep it out—is a scientifically credible and economically rational program of forest-based carbon sequestration.
First, Emissions Reduction; Then, Forest Conservation
Forest-based carbon sequestration should not be used as an excuse to not reduce energy use through efficiency improvements. The carbon that is released to the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been sequestered for millions of years and should stay that way. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has made a strong case for addressing two thirds of the carbon emissions problem through technological improvements in energy efficiency that are readily available and cost-effective (many of which after institutional barriers are addressed).
Having said this, there is a very significant role for carbon sequestration—especially with forests—in reducing CO2 build-up in the atmosphere. How big that role will be will depend on the relative cost of sequestering carbon versus reducing emissions. The great interest in Kyoto was due to the political hope that carbon sequestration could be the fat-free hot fudge sundae solution (sounds perfect, but it doesn't exist) to global CO2 emissions, without having to reduce emissions. The largest contribution must come from emissions reductions.
1. Moneys to mitigate carbon emissions should be directed toward acquisition of intact or degraded natural ecosystems (particularly forestlands, but also grasslands and wetlands) for the purpose of carbon sequestration.
2. Carbon emitters would pay the capital cost of land acquisition. Such lands would be given to public agencies for management with proviso's that if natural, the land stays natural or if degraded, the land is to be restored to a natural condition. A tax deduction would be available equal to the value of the gift.
3. For the collateral benefits received by the public (watershed protection, species habitat, recreation, etc.) public agencies would assume ongoing management costs.
It is this latter point that is critical to the success. Many public agencies could come up with the annual operation and maintenance costs to manage additional public lands, but it the capital costs of acquisition are prohibitive. Similarly, since these management costs are assumed by other entities, the capital cost to the emitter of sequestering a unit of carbon is very cost competitive with other methods of carbon emission mitigation.
1. Sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in ecosystems.
2. Provides a revenue source acquisition of new public lands, removing them from the industrial base and dedicating them to biodiversity, watershed, recreation, subsistence and other benefits.
3. Makes it possible to implement the principles of conservation biology, which are necessary if we are to provide for functioning ecosystems both across the landscape and time.
Issues to Be Addressed
How great can the contribution of natural CO2 storage be to mitigate climate change?
Global warming is a huge problem that requires large cuts in emissions. Current US CO2 emissions are 1.4 billion tons/year. Just how much benefit can mitigation by natural sequestration be?
What is the range of costs of preventing emission of versus sequestering of a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere?
What are the economics of installing better technologies, changing fuel sources, removing and storing CO2 before emission, etc. versus natural ecosystem storage options (see below)? Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountains Institute makes a compelling case that the cost of significant CO2 emission reductions is negative, in that the increased efficiency will more than pay for the adoption of new technologies and fuel switching. How much additional CO2 do we want to remove from the atmosphere to restore to a more natural condition?
How to account for carbon sequestration?
Is some form of economic discounting appropriate? If a degraded cutover forestland is acquired, sequestration benefits can begin immediately, but are maximized several decades later, after the life expectancy of the power plant that is being mitigated. If such lands were allowed to grow longer, total carbon sequestered could be much greater. Most analyses dwell on the rate of fixing carbon from the atmosphere rather than total carbon stored over time. Another issue is that of financial discount rates. Society has in interest in sequestering the carbon far beyond the time value of money. Appropriate accounting systems re necessary to so reflect.
How to pay for carbon sequestration?
It is not clear how society will address the massive reduction of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, but it is likely to imposing the cost of emission on the emitters. Forest conservationists should be ready to articulate how their plan can most effectively use mitigation funds whether they come from a tax, general appropriations, or whatever.
Toward what ecosystems should CO2 mitigation funds be directed?
Should environmentalists rank ecosystems for priority sequestration efforts based on biodiversity benefits or should it simply be a market decision of least cost per ton of carbon sequestered?
What is the cost effectiveness of difference ecosystem acquisitions?
What is the cost to sequester a ton of carbon in various ecosystem types? The number will be a function of the per acre efficiency and capacity of a particular ecosystem in storing carbon and per acre cost of said ecosystem. For example, below is a list of the various tropical, temperate and boreal forest ecosystem types that should be evaluated. It is not exhaustive.
Costa Rica Intact
Costa Rica Cutover
Oregon Coast Range Cutover (industrial)
Oregon Coast Range Recovering (state forest)
California Redwoods Intact (Headwaters)
California Redwoods Cutover (Headwaters and others)
Intermountain West (dry) Intact (public)
Intermountain West (dry) Cutover (private)
Maine Woods Mature (industrial)
Maine Woods Cutover (industrial)
Southern Appalachian Maturing Forest (industrial)
Southern Appalachian Cutover Forest (industrial)
Some other ecosystems should also be tested. While they may not sequester as much carbon, the per acre acquisition cost may still make it quite attractive. For example:
• Oregon Great Basin Sagebrush Steppe (degraded)
• Kansas Short Grass Prairie (restorable)
• Illinois Tall Grass Prairie (restorable)
• Oregon Klamath Basin Freshwater Wetlands (degraded)
• Coastal Wetlands (East) Chesapeake Bay (degraded)
• Coastal Wetlands (West) Puget Sound (degraded)
Urban tree planting should also be analyzed both for its carbon sequestration benefits and because it also moderates urban temperatures and the need for air-conditioning. It also provides for long-lived trees, not subject to commercial exploitation.
How should CO2 mitigation funds be spent?
What is the benefit-cost to the carbon emitter of fee-simple acquisition of a given ecosystem type (and donation to a public agency for management) v. paying a private landowner to lengthen a rotation of timber? (We suspect that economic discount rates will favor permanent forest protection options over the lengthening of timber rotations in that the cost of the latter is about the same as the former while having far less sequestration and other benefits.) How do the carbon savings compare over time and with cost? What is the cost effectiveness of investing in degraded ecosystems and restoring them versus buying the timber rights to intact forest stands to prevent their logging and the resultant CO2 release?
Where should CO2 mitigation funds be spent?
In a global sense, stored carbon anywhere mitigates emitted carbon anywhere. However, there other are environmental impacts associated with carbon emission activities, including the decline of local air quality, consumption and pollution of water, loss of species habitat, etc. which are associated with the industrial process or in the provision of feedstock to the industrial process. Is it appropriate to favor natural carbon sequestration projects close to the emitter, to help mitigate these other associated impacts (land, air, water, and aesthetic degradation)? Additionally, given the social, legal and political instability in much of the developing world, how likely that the carbon sequestration will actually occur and not be negated by trespass, theft, fraud, etc.?
What mechanisms are necessary for the efficient acquisition of carbon credits from natural ecosystem storage?
Should a Carbon Bank in which emitters can deposit funds in exchange for mitigation credits, and sequesters can receive funds for projects? Who should run bank? To whom would it be accountable?
The Next Steps
The next steps are to answer the questions posed above in generally the following order.
1. Scientific Analysis
First, the numbers need to be run on the effectiveness of natural carbon storage by the manner proposed (permanent ecosystem protection). For forests, most of the modeling to date assumes timber will be cut, and focuses on extending rotations. Many studies also incorrectly assume that usable wood is permanently sequestered in long-lived wood products. Many studies focus on the rate of carbon sequestration from growing forests, but fail to adequately factor the total amount sequestered in a forest, especially old growth forests. This information must be compiled in a usable form for policy makers, the media, environmental activists and others.
2. Economic Analysis
Second, the economic tradeoffs and options need to be considered. How does cost-effective natural carbon sequestration interact wit cost-effective energy efficiency improvements?
3. Policy Analysis
Third after the science and economics are clear, then the implications for such a policy must be addressed. How to avoid having forest-based carbon sequestration used as a substitute for fossil fuel emissions reductions? How does it affect the forest conservation debate? Is it politically attainable?
(This was first posted on May 20, 1999.)
Andy Kerr is a free-lance environmental agitator and writer who lives in Oregon's Rogue Valley. He spent two decades with the Oregon Natural Resources Council, the organization best known for having brought you the northern spotted owl. He is a founding board member of the North American Industrial Hemp Council. Beyond Wood: The Case For Forests and Against Wood Products is the working title of a book he's trying to find time to write.