Wednesday, October 29, 2008

This is why I think we shouldn't count carbon stored in harvested wood products

I am always taking the position that we should not include carbon stored in wood products as contributing to our Kyoto obligations or within forest carbon offsets and I am often challenged by others for this position. Their challenge is usually along the lines of, "But carbon in wood products is real, why not count what the atmosphere sees?" Here are some comments I made last week in D.C. to the Forest Carbon Standards Committee established by the AF&PA laying out my argument. It boils down to this: ask not just what the atmosphere sees, ask what outcome you wish to achieve!

The wood and paper industry is in the business of supplying society with products of great value to society. One of the environmental costs of this activity is that managed forests are maintained at a younger age and their carbon stocks at a lower level than would naturally occur.

Sufficient incentive already exists from the market place for the wood and paper industry to transform trees into products. What the industry needs is a financial incentive to reduce the impact of this activity on forest carbon stocks, while continuing to meet the societal product demand.

In developing carbon market incentives for forest management, we should therefore focus on increasing forest carbon stocks, not harvested wood product stocks. There is no inherent benefit of transferring carbon from the forest pool to the product pool. In fact, there are ecological costs to this transformation.

The main greenhouse gas benefit of supplying society with wood products is that they have lower embodied emissions than alternatives, especially in construction: the production of wood results in far fewer emissions than the production of steel or concrete. Placing a price on carbon will create an incentive to switch from concrete and steel to wood because of this lower emission profile. This incentive will exist without counting the carbon stored in the wood itself. This incentive should increase the demand for wood.

An increased demand for wood should create increased pressure on our forest that would exacerbate the lowering of forest carbon stocks. Let us use the forest carbon offset as a mechanism to reward forest managers and landowners that are able to meet this demand while also maintaining forest carbon stocks high or even increasing them.

These two forces pulling in different directions (price on carbon demanding more wood and an offset system rewarding more carbon in the forest) could help us find an environmentally optimal solution. Including carbon in harvested wood products in forest offset systems will reduce the impact of incentives to maintain or increase forest carbon stocks.

Implementing this approach is not a question of 'excluding' carbon in wood products from accounting; it is simply a question of making forest carbon stocks the focus of accounting and incentives.


Trevor Hesselink said...

I think you have nailed it Chris. I really like this approach, as it asks the right questions of the tools being discussed. Thanks!


Chris Harrison said...

Chris, I'm a new visitor to your blog and appreciate you taking the time to advance this discussion.

Chris Harrison
The Pacific Forest Trust
San Francisco

Christian said...

Thanks very much for this clear explanation. This really offered a new reason to be opposed to accounting for carbon stored in harvested wood products.
So far, I thought that there would be nothing wrong with accounting for them IF we lived in a world with a global cap and all carbon atoms accounted for (because in such a world you really account for what the atmosphere sees).
But since we don't live in such a world, accounting for carbon stored in HWPs could open up a lot of loopholes and inconsistencies etc in accounting and be used as yet another tool to avoid reduction in fossil fuel emissions.
For this reason I thought that accounting for carbon stored in HWPs is a very bad idea. Now you show that even withouth these concerns (or in a world in which they’re solved) it is a bad idea since it creates the wrong sort of incentives. Thanks for that!

gluckster said...

Hi Chris,
I agree with you on the carbon-price incentive for using wood products. However, the main reason to exclude forest carbon from climate change policy discussions has to do with uncertainty. But lets make sure that we treat forest carbon equally across policy discussions -- the same uncertainty that exists in using managed forests to offset GHG emissions also exists in using protected forests to meet the same goal. Creating a park instead of parking a car creates a easy way for people to ease their carbon guilt but it likely does little to meet our climate change goals.

Anonymous said...

Chris, thanks for taking a position on this, which is well-articulated anbd thoughtful.

On the other side of the coin, I continue to push for the inclusion of HWP as long as other carbon pools are included - such as operations emissions.

In the short term, it is true that many have tried to incorporate HWP to create additional offsets without the accountability of full life cycle analysis and methodologies.

In the long-term, I believe that this current shortcoming should not prevent us to push for a systemic approach to carbon accounting, and I therefore take the position that HWP should be counted as long as other carbon pools (i.e. operations emissions) are accounted for as well.

In my view, the more we push for systemic analysis, conservation co-benefits, the more project will withstand quality criticism and gain support from all sectors in the long-run (communities, ENGO's, Foresters). A pure conservation approach seems to negate some of the required complexity to achieve global systemic impact.

Daniel Arbour,
Ecotrust Canada.

Chris Henschel said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I apologize for my tardy response.

I agree Christian, that the other big concern with HWP accounting is its incompleteness and in this context what we choose to include and exclude can create significant loopholes. For example, the Australian governmnent has apparently made a couple of overtures now where it has suggested that HWP carbon should be accounted for but forest management emissions accounting should be voluntary. This could lead to a very perverse outcome.

Gluckster, I agree with you that uncertainty must also be an important factor, but I think the larger policy perspective raised by Christian and in my original post are actually the bigger issues here.

Daniel, I do understand where you're coming from and I think your logic is sound assuming two things:
1. A policy and political environment that will allow us to have full carbon accounting.
2. An assumption that a carbon molecule is a carbon molecule, no matter where it comes from.

I challenge both of these assumptions. It's very uncertain how political and policy discussions on forest carbon will go. At the international level it is conceivable that we end up with several voluntary activities including carbon storage in wood products. In this uncertain context, I think it is dangerous to advance HWP accounting.

I won't say more on the second assumption, as that was the focus of my original post.

Thanks for the comments everyone! Happy to hear back from you again.