Time for Carbon Payments?
The Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA) has recently joined the calls of others in Ireland by demanding a mechanism to facilitate carbon payments to forest owners. This is because trees take carbon from the air as they grow. But how would such a scheme work and who would foot the bill? The ITGA are pointing to the UK’s Woodland Carbon Code as a simple template we could follow.
The Woodland Carbon Code
Philanthropic support for environmental projects has been happening for years but the Woodland Carbon Code provides a common platform for carbon verification, project comparison and trading to occur. It was created through rigorous scientific investigation and analysis to provide hard numbers on the estimated carbon each forest can create: these are verified carbon units. The Woodland Carbon Code is adjusted as new scientific research comes on stream which ensures it’s up to date. Using this as a starting point, companies and individuals are voluntarily paying money for verified carbon units to offset the damage they are causing in their own activities.
So for example, EasyJet embraced the concept by investing in woodlands to offset the damage airline fuel pollution causes. The argument goes that these woodlands would not have happened (or be managed in a particular way) had it not been for EasyJets financial intervention. It’s good for the environment and their public image. Win win so far. And despite the fact that Ireland has yet to develop a carbon code of it’s own, Microsoft has already partnered with Greenbelt in Ireland and the UK based Forest Carbon Ltd to plant forests in Ireland!
Verified Carbon Units by forest type.
So what verified carbon units could your forest have? Each forest varies as carbon storage per hectare is determined by species, expected growth rate, soil types and other factors such as number of trees planted per hectare. So for example a conifer monoculture to be clearfelled for it’s timber value after 40 years will have a specific rate attached per hectare. A native woodland that will never be harvested for timber is allocated a much higher verified carbon unit per hectare (than the conifer monoculture) since it will store carbon and also provide important ecosystem services such as biodiversity and habitat enhancement, water filtration etc. In the middle are sensitively managed woodlands – forests in which timber is extracted but in which gradual felling takes place but never clearfell – this concept of continuous cover forestry has been covered here in the past.
I got in touch with ForestCarbon.co.uk and they gave me these sample figures. Note that the term Yield Class is mentioned and this is essentially how fast that species grows: For example, a sessile oak plantation (Yield Class 8) planted at 1,600 stems / ha will sequester circa 400 tonnes of CO2 over 50 years. This assumes that timber is not removed. Under a thinning regime (i.e. Continuous Cover Forestry) that figure drops to around 300t CO2 per hectare over 50 years. Clearfell that same oak woodland (not that you would!) and the carbon figure drops to 200t CO2 / ha over 50 years. So if an organisation was offering ten euro per carbon unit then the oak forest to be clearfelled would be worth €2000 per hectare over the lifetime of the forest. This is a once off payment. If the demand for carbon units rises substantially and the price of 50€ was possible, it would make that same hectare of woodland worth €10,000 (in terms of its carbon units).
Buyers and Sellers
Next forestry companies or specific carbon trading brokers match the willing carbon purchasing organisations or individuals with the forest owning landowners. Prices go up and down and large organisations keen to quickly amass carbon units may pay above the odds to get them. Some organisations may prefer carbon units from native woodlands and this can boost these prices vis a vis the prices for conifer monocultures. The Woodland Carbon Code advise land owners to shop around.
Where Does It End
So can we expect to be paid for our farm hedgerows, a 20 year old conifer plantation or an area of scrub that hasn’t seen human activity in 100 years? No is the quick answer. The Woodland Carbon Code emphasizes the concept of “additionality”: This means that at present only new projects can be eligible to register for carbon units. This doesn’t mean that EU payment may not be forthcoming for existing carbon sinks but in the case of the UK’s Woodland Carbon Code it doesn’t yet make allowance for such trees. Similarly an area of bogland (which scientists tell us also sequester carbon and regulate rainfall in our landscape) wouldn’t be eligible under the Woodland Carbon Code as it’s already there so no new funding is needed to make it happen.
Carbon trading schemes have lots of critics. Firstly, existing sinks are disqualified at present. Some say the scheme allows rich polluters a “plenary indulgence” to greenwash, to continue their wicked ways by simply “buying” their way into heaven. Many environmentalists argue that the emphasis needs to be on reducing pollution in the first instance: they praise projects like the “Bishops Appeal” organised by the Church of Ireland which funds the purchase of efficient wood burning stoves for communities in Africa. This replaces inefficient open fires and reduces emissions long term. Others balk at carbon prices being determined by supply and demand and with carbon brokers taking a cut of the proceeds. And with science continuing to shed new light on the wider area of carbon capture in soil and in trees, other’s say it’s too soon to really understand the forces at work. Time will tell.