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Forestry, Global Warming, and the Multi-Billion-Dollar Carbon-Credit Grab

Yosemite National Park Sequoia Trees

Tall forest of sequoias in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Stephen Moehle

In November, almost all the countries of the world agreed to what seems like an ambitious plan — to slow the global warming juggernaut. I have been practicing forestry for more than 20 years, and it is clear to me that a critical piece of the global-cooling equation is not being addressed and will not be addressed unless the public is educated.

Global Warming, Then and Now

Al Gore's film in 2006 rang the alarm bells loudest about the threat. In February, he updated his message with a 20-minute Ted Talk that covered the same scary ground but ended on a positive note.

Mr. Gore highlighted the exponential growth of solar and wind energy and how they are now close to matching traditional energy sources in cost. He believes the continuing drop in cost will accelerate the conversion away from fossil fuels and be a major part of the solution.

Mr. Gore focuses on human technology and does not address the two largest natural carbon sink technologies: the oceans and forests.

Wood is mostly compromised of carbon, and forests are enormous reservoirs of carbon. They are the original global-cooling technology and can have a huge impact in terms of carbon sequestration if managed differently.

How Did We Get Here?

A comprehensive UN report published in 2000 (Global Forest Resource Assessment, page 14) on the state of the earth's forests breaks down the amount of forest cover the earth had before the ascent of mankind beginning 8,000 years ago. The report concludes that 50% of the land mass was forested then and that it had diminished to 30% by 2000 (40% decline).

At face value, you can conclude that earth today retains 60% of the original forest cover and you would be partially correct.

Yes, we still have 30% of the land mass of the earth forested, but, more importantly, the great majority of the remaining forestlands have a lot less wood volume per acre (think carbon).

Most forests are working forests. They are cut regularly for lumber production and other uses. Only 12.7% of the earth's forests are protected (Global Forest Resource Assessment 2000, executive summary page xxv).

The majority, the remaining 87.3%, is maintained in a state of relatively fast growth and low volume for maximum wood production.

Although we still have magnificent expanses of protected or uncut forestlands worldwide, most of the earth’s forests are young forests that average a small fraction of the volume they could have or that they had prior to the ascent of man. For example, in our local Redwood forest region, the working forests amount to nearly 80% of the acreage and have on average less than 25% of their original stand volumes. This is not atypical worldwide.

Sunset In Redwood Tree Forest

Setting sun in the redwood forest. Photo by Open Heart Designs

You can quibble with the numbers a bit, but the conclusion is the same: the largest natural technology at our disposal to quickly sequester enormous amounts of carbon has given up most of its carbon reserves and there is no plan to truly reverse this.

Efficient Global-Cooling Technology

Today, an opportunity exists to accelerate forest sequestration because of the billions of dollars in carbon credits being developed. As these credits are defined, a central theme is being ignored.

The credits are not focused on permanent volume and inventory growth per acre of trees but rather on agreements to protect the forests from further degradation. Minor improvements in habitat, riparian issues and other forestry concerns are often part of the mix, but the primary issue of significantly increasing the volume of standing wood is largely ignored.

I manage forestland in Northern California’s Redwood forest. In terms of scale, our company is a guppy in the forest industry surrounded by big fish that own tens and hundreds of thousands of acres around us.

We are not alone in the restoration game, and what can be practiced on hundreds of acres can be practiced on millions. If a huge carrot is carefully crafted, most forestland owners will convert to a more conservative approach, because it is in their interest to do so.

Since 1994, our company, Forever Redwood, has continued to harvest a conservative amount of lumber from our lands while allowing the forest to increase in volume decade by decade. We specialize in custom-made pavilions and pergola kits as well as a wide range of patio furniture.

Beyond harvesting Redwood and crafting furniture, we also do soil-building work, thinning of the stand for species composition, and overall tree quality improvement. But, the most important point in our restoration efforts is to permanently limit the rate of cut below 20% in any 15-year period.

Wood Volume = Amount of Carbon Sequestered

When we began managing our heavily cut-over lands, the volume per acre was under 7,000 board feet (bf), on average. Today, despite at least one harvest on all our parcels, the average volume per acre doubled to 14,000 board feet per acre and will again double to 28,000 bf per acre before the year 2050.

Logs Harvested From Sanctuary Forest

Logs harvested from Sanctuary Forest. Photo by Forever Redwood

Most foresters will tell you that if you limit the rate of cut and do some stand improvement work, you can accomplish dramatic volume increases and improvements in overall tree quality for almost any natural forest stand anywhere.

At Forever Redwood, we use the limited amount of wood harvested to make a value-added line of products that pays for the forestry work. Our model works, but for industrial-scale forestlands, this is not viable. They are in a commodity business where they sell logs or lumber at thin margins and must cut substantial volume to survive.

The enormous carbon credit market being formed is an opportunity to change this industrial model permanently.

If the carbon credits are tied to pledges that significantly increase and maintain much greater standing timber volumes, then quick progress will be made to sequester carbon on an enormous scale as a major part of the global warming solution.

As the example of our small holdings show, it took us 22 years to double volume and another 35 years to double it again. And, while these figures will vary according to local conditions, the basic principle applies worldwide.

To do this does not require a preservationist plan where the forests are left alone. On the contrary, forests that have already been cut in most cases should continue to be worked to produce employment, improve stand quality and good-quality lumber in perpetuity.

The key is to tie carbon credits almost exclusively to verifiable and retained volume increases and to limit or eliminate credits for projects that do not.

The Carbon Credit Market is Throwing Away Billions

The carbon-credit market is not being developed to double or triple the amount of carbon sequestered in coming decades. Instead, only relatively small volume increases are being agreed to and the focus is on secondary, beneficial projects that avoid the main point that needs to be addressed.

The credits are developed in conversation with or by industry. It is a short-term financial sacrifice to leave the wood in the forests. Most forest interests will not do so unless they cannot access the huge carbon credit market without it.

Log Harvester In Forest

The harvester working in a forest. Photo by Kletr

It is a dream to think most forestland owners will craft carbon credit programs that insist a portion of future harvests be left in the woods by scaling back the rate of cut. Yet, from our experience, doing so increases the quality of the wood harvested (and its market value) and eventually results in higher revenues.

But, it takes a few decades to accomplish this. The carbon credits should be used partially to help bridge that difficult financial gap.

If used as an incentive to lower the rate of cut, forestland owners can still make money and make huge contributions to global cooling during the transition to higher-quality, lower-volume forestry. But, they will not do this on their own.

Increased Public Understanding is Needed

Do not be fooled by secondary issues. Wood is carbon. Carbon volumes sequestered in the woods need to multiply to significantly contribute to global cooling. Without this, the carbon credit market is mostly wasted as a tool for significant global cooling.

Delve into the carbon credit debate. You will only see tangential references to volume. No commitments to permanent, huge-volume increases. The main point is being obfuscated and set aside and this not by accident.

We have the technology. It was developed hundreds of millions of years ago: Photosynthesis. Carbon credits tied to volume increases maintained in perpetuity is a win-win for all. Huge fines need to be part of the equation for those that violate the agreements. Billions of dollars are on the table and the minor issue of global cooling is also.

Once the credit market matures and is commodified, the game is set and will not be altered. This opportunity is likely to not come again, but the bright side is that we still have time to save our forests.

Raul D. Hernandez founded Forever Redwood in 1995 by purchasing 41 acres of logged forestland and now manages over 700 acres of redwood forest with a focus on hands-on restoration. He incorporated the business in 1999, serves as its CEO, and wrote the manual "Old-Growth Again: Restoring Logged Forests One Tree at a Time." Raul spends his time between the Redwood forests of Annapolis, Ca., and the Forever Redwood woodworking shop in Ensenada, Baja California. Connect with him on the Forever Redwood Blog, Facebook, and Twitter. Read all of Raul's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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