Carbon Karma: How Companies Use Forests to Offset Pollution
Erica Grieder's weekly series explores how businesses are responding to consumers, governments, and markets to make their practices and their products more sustainable.
Why would you pay someone just to own a forest?
The biggest challenge is convincing companies that paying for offsets makes sense. “So far, it is purely a voluntary market,” says Keister Evans, president of Forest Carbon Offsets, a for-profit offsets outfit headquartered in Virginia.
One of the company's credit-purchasing customers is a travel company that sails to Central America. Forest Carbon Offsets has some projects there, so cruise ship customers may be attracted to the idea of their passage fees boosting a sustainability concern. In other cases, the company’s interest is more general; Texas-based Dell, for example, has a project with Conservation International to protect some 600,000 acres of forest in Madagascar, keeping half a million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Forest carbon can be a tough sell to the landowners, too. It’s not that people in Kentucky or West Virginia don’t believe in climate change, says Scott Shouse, who manages a program called the Appalachian Carbon Partnership, but that after generations of business pitches—from the coal industry or timber companies—they’re a little leery when someone turns up promising to make them money on a slightly abstract investment. So Shouse gives interested landowners a low-key pitch: Get to know a forester. Not a forest ranger—a more common character in the area—a forester is an advocate, like a doctor or a lawyer: not always right, but highly trained and expert in their field. They’ll come look at your land, and if it looks like a good fit for the program, you can implement some sustainable forestry techniques and sell the carbon credits through the partnership. There’s some up-front cost, about $1,500 to cover the auditors who will figure out a management plan.
If certain improvements are made—planting species with a greater
carbon uptake, for example, or selective harvesting to foster a more
sustainable growth cycle—more carbon will be sequestered on a homeowner's
land, and companies will buy those offsets for the next 15 years. An acre of forested land sequesters perhaps three metric tons of carbon dioxide a
year, each ton being worth one credit. At about $15 a credit,
depending on market rates—Shouse’s partnership is a nonprofit, and takes a 10 percent cut—a landowner with a 100-acre plot could recoup her costs in about a year.
From an environmental perspective, forest carbon offsets are a clear winner: Trees hoover up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and store it. (Conversely, deforestation is a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions.) Forests have huge benefits: They protect wildlife, water, soil, and livelihoods. Even aside from offsetting, people want to save the forests.
There is, however, movement on the state level; California plans to launch a cap-and-trade program next year, which will allow power plants, refineries and factories to meet up to 8 percent of their air- quality compliance obligations through offsets rather than emissions reductions. Other states might follow suit. Evans argues that carbon credits are a good investment; they can be traded, and if you believe regulations are forthcoming, now may be a time to buy low.