19 April, 2016
Not all forestry is carbon equal
The UN's International Day of Forests was on March 21. While
some people might see this as merely a day for tree-huggers to crunch their
granola a little louder, this day is important for celebrating one of the most
valuable ecosystems - not to mention commodities - that our planet has. Forests
clean our air, enhance water security, support critical biodiversity and serve
as the world's oldest and most proven carbon storage technology.
But on this International Day of Forests, as the world
continues to see significant forest loss globally, I want to spotlight one
important issue: we can't ensure a sustainable future for forests by simply
striving to protect them from development. We must also engage the forestry
sector in sustainable forest management.
We rely on these forest businesses to deliver products such
as timber and paper that we use every day. And whether we like it or not, we
also rely on them to safeguard our forest resources, and ideally enhance the
environmental services these working forests can deliver. Too often this does
not happen, as economic gain is put far ahead of the forest's other crucial
contributions to the environment and society. This is where we must focus our
The power of sustainable forestry is that it balances the
needs of the environment, communities and economies - and the good news is that
it is possible. Research conducted by a team of scientists including my Nature
Conservancy colleague Bronson Griscom, shows that selective logging can retain
85-100% of a forest's biodiversity and at least 75% of its carbon (Putz et al.,
2012). Plus, well-run production forests also do a better job of safeguarding
surrounding protected forest areas from illegal logging. In other words, one of
the best forms of forest protection is managing better forest production.
To be clear, there remain important challenges to achieving
sustainable forest management. But exciting new developments - new science,
technology and tools, and business models - are enabling us to address many of
these challenges today.
Science and technology take on the carbon challenge
One important scientific challenge has been measuring
accurately the carbon emissions caused by logging. It's easy to see and measure
a large section of standing forest, or destroyed forest for that matter, by
using satellite imagery. But it's much harder to see and reliably measure
what's happening under the canopy of a managed forest - even if the degradation
is dramatic on the ground. Compiling this crucial data requires precise
measurement tools, careful monitoring of the forest floor, and collaborations
at multiple levels of the industry across the world - a massive effort.
My colleagues Bronson Griscom and Peter Ellis have made a
significant step forward in the area of measuring and monitoring by recently
developing a carbon equation model that calculates a margin of error for each
of the many scientific variables in play on the ground. This more finely tuned
model is a big move toward achieving higher quality information needed to
effectively inform and influence forestry decisions.
Equally important is including that data in forest
management carbon baselines so that we can then determine successful carbon
reduction over time. Many forest operations haven't yet made room to include
carbon emission values in project plans and evaluations. But successful forest
management isn't just about the number of trees standing. By accounting for
carbon emissions data as well, forest managers will have a more detailed and
accurate snapshot of a forest's environmental role and economic potential. All
comparisons of sustainable forest management practices versus intensive
commercial logging operations should be making space for this data.
One sustainable forest management practice that has me
particularly optimistic is Reduced-Impact Logging for Carbon (RIL-C). The
strategy balances environment, community and economy by reducing forestry
impact while maintaining the timber commodity and providing jobs. RIL-C
investigates multiple aspects of logging - such as the width of skid trails,
the direction that trees land when they fall, and even the extraction equipment
loggers use - and optimizes them to minimize landscape damage while keeping
carbon emissions down. In Indonesia, for example, we believe that we can cut
logging carbon emissions by 40 percent through greater adoption of RIL-C.
But, to prove out RIL-C success, we again need reliable
measuring and monitoring. One exciting tool, LiDAR, has the potential to
literally sweep across the globe - LiDAR involves flying a specially equipped
airplane that beams lights to generate a three-dimensional map of forest cover.
The tool quickly produces highly accurate maps that can help in identifying
sensitive habitat and landscape features that hamper wood production. To
support our sustainable forest work in Indonesia, we have combined satellite
forest loss data using satellite LiDAR with forest degradation data obtained
from field monitoring to estimate net carbon emissions for the entire 2.1
million-hectare district of Berau (or 5.2 acres, an area roughly the size of
New Jersey) from 2000 to 2010.
While upfront costs for LiDAR are a consideration, these
costs are coming down with economies of scale and the introduction of new
technologies for deployment, such as drones.
Economic gain holds the key to scale
The last challenge I'll touch on is the scaling up of
sustainable forest management. This hinges on our ability to demonstrate the
short-term and long-term financial benefits of these practices.
This is a big topic, as I've written here. But one thing is certain:
the historically maligned carbon credit conversation needs to significantly
evolve. It is high time that we begin to value the crucial role our forests
play in delivering a suite of environmental services, from cleaning up the air
and storing more carbon to enhancing water security and protecting biodiversity
in addition to the economic value of logs produced and jobs created. This
requires that we align incentives and put a price on these environmental
services so that forest owners and operators optimize production and protection
practices based on a broader picture of economic opportunity that includes
profitable environmental benefits.
Today I'll point to one promising example. California's
Climate Change law includes a market mechanism that allows companies to buy
carbon credits from anywhere in the United States - and potentially from other
countries in the future - that can include credits from sustainable forest
The Nature Conservancy's Clinch Valley Conservation Forestry
Program has seen its own sustainable forestry progress accelerate due to the
California climate law. The Clinch Valley program closely tracks carbon
emissions across more than 22,000 acres of managed forest in Virginia and
Tennessee. Over 50,000 carbon credits have already been received, which is
roughly equal to the carbon dioxide emissions from 5.6 million gallons of
As I've written before, carbon markets are helpful in
leading change, though insufficient on their own. But when we create
opportunities to align multiple incentives for switching to more sustainable
management, this can garner global forest conservation a new level of
attention. For example, forest products certified to be under sustainable
management practices carry demonstrably higher price premiums. Combining forest
certification with carbon markets means even greater financial returns.
Forests to protect, cherish, and celebrate
The key to tapping into the potential of sustainable forest
management is seeing that it doesn't just impact one stand of trees - it
impacts economies, communities, and the environment. In just the past two
decades we've taken great strides in making sustainable forest management a
reality in different places around the world. But we've still really only scratched
the surface. Much of this isn't glamorous work. And the scientific details and
economic incentives remain critically important to get right. But with the
promising progress we've made and the new science, tools and financial models
emerging today, I can envision a future International Day of Forests that gives
us truly global cause for celebration.
Justin Adams (@JustinCMAdams) is Global Managing Director
for Lands at The Nature Conservancy.
Source: Huffington Post