Sep 6, 2023

The role of improved forest management for carbon dioxide removal



Sep 6, 2023

The role of improved forest management for carbon dioxide removal



Sep 6, 2023

The role of improved forest management for carbon dioxide removal

According to the findings of the most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) synthesis report, even in the best-case emissions reduction scenario, we must remove 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2030 to prevent the most severe, difficult-to-reverse, impacts of climate change. In the medium and long term, engineered carbon removal will be required to deliver the scale and durability required to meet climate targets. But aggressive action requires starting now with scalable solutions. In the near term, nature-based solutions have an important role to play in scaling carbon dioxide removal, and among these, improved forest management holds the most immediate promise. 

Globally, improved forest management has the potential to increase total stored carbon annually by 200 million to 2.1 billion tonnes without compromising the wood product and ecosystem benefits that come with managed forestlands. Compared to the ten billion tonnes that need to be removed annually from the atmosphere by 2050, improved forest management could contribute a critical 20% to that goal. However, in order for it to realize its full potential as a carbon removal solution, we need to ensure quality in how these projects are designed, developed, and promoted on the voluntary carbon market

Improved forest management explained

Improved forest management is a catch-all phrase that describes management techniques that decrease emissions from forests or increase carbon removal and storage. Some management techniques, like reducing harvest volumes, decrease emissions from forests and create credits for avoided emissions. Other management techniques like lengthening forest rotations, can actually lead to greater carbon removal and storage and create credits for additional carbon removal. 

Read more: What you need to know before buying carbon credits >

How improved forest management removes CO2

The majority of high-quality improved forest management credits are created by a practice called extended rotation forestry. Commercial forests are harvested on a regular basis—extending the rotation simply means lengthening the time between harvest events. By delaying the harvest of commercial forests beyond the point that maximizes profit, trees can grow larger and remove additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But because harvesting younger, quickly growing trees yields maximum economic value for timberland owners, extended rotation can be costly. Issuing carbon credits is a way to compensate forest owners for letting trees grow larger than would be economically optimal. 

Measuring carbon removal in improved forest management

Quality benchmarks, implemented and measured by project developers, distinguish high-quality improved forest management from the low-quality. For extended rotation projects, the following quality principles are of particular importance: setting conservative project baselines; preventing economic leakage; and assessing accurate project durability. 

Setting conservative project baselines: Delivering real, additional carbon removal with improved forest management starts with conservative and place-based project baselines. For example: While low-quality baselines assume that, without carbon financing, a forest would be aggressively logged, high-quality improved forest management projects take into account local harvest rates and the market demand for timber to develop realistic baselines. This prevents creating an artificially high harvest rate that over inflates the carbon impacts of a project.

Read more: Our review of how IFM protocols risk overestimation of carbon credits >

Preventing leakage: To prevent leakage—the economic displacement of emissions from one project site to another geographic location—it is important that improved forest management projects do not drastically decrease the overall output of wood products. Removing one supply of paper and wood products displaces the demand for timber outside of a project boundary or to another market. However, because trees continue to grow as the rotation extends, improved forest management projects can often maintain harvest levels that are similar to the baseline levels. By sustaining harvest levels alongside improved forest management strategies like extended rotations, working forests can increase the total carbon storage in a given project area without leakage. 

Assessing and accounting for project durability: To assure the durability (the amount of time carbon dioxide is captured and stored) of a project, high-quality improved forest management projects can take proactive management actions to decrease the risk of re-releasing carbon into the atmosphere—i.e. from wildfires, other natural, disasters, and disease. The project length also contributes to durability by setting the minimal amount of time removed carbon is stored: Most U.S.–based improved forest management project lengths range between 40-100 years, depending on the methodology the project developer uses. During the life of a project, the risk of re-releasing carbon dioxide can be accounted for by contributing credits to a “buffer pool” which can act as insurance against reversals. 

Like many carbon removal solutions, low-quality credits are a pervasive issue in improved forest management, one that Carbon Direct scientists have been critical of. Unrealistic project baselines, leakage, and durability challenges all contribute to over-crediting in low-quality projects, even among project types that have the potential for carbon removal. Over-crediting is a core challenge to meaningful climate action as it misallocates funds to less valuable mitigation activities, undermining the ability of carbon markets to drive effective climate action.

Read more: The Criteria for High-Quality Carbon Removal >

The benefits of high-quality improved forest management

At present, there is no such thing as a perfect carbon removal solution. Even the most effective, permanent solutions on a per-acre or per-dollar basis cannot remove carbon in a way that is cost-effective and scalable enough to reach climate targets. This is where well-designed improved forest management projects have an advantage: 

In the U.S., there are currently 445 million acres of privately owned forest land. With carbon credits as an incentive to compensate for lost profits, much of this land can be leveraged into improved forest management projects. When you factor in a low cost-per-tonne with the potential carbon removal of up to one tonne of additional CO2 per acre, per year over twenty years, improved forest management credits could be an abundant and affordable solution for credit buyers. Compared to engineered solutions such as direct air capture, which show promise in the future but have significant development costs, or reforestation, which competes for land, improved forest management projects are relatively low-cost, scalable, and immediately available.

Low-cost, scalable, and immediate are important, considering that current climate models demand urgent solutions—and we can’t wait for the next big advancement to start making progress, especially when readily available near-term solutions exist. Thanks to decades of forest management, we have accurate, reproducible models of how commercial forests grow and store carbon, making high-quality improved forest management projects an important part of a realistic, predictable near-term way to remove carbon. 


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