Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Forest Offsets Will Add to Environmental Harm (unless there's a re-think)

As details begin to emerge, it is becoming clear that forest offset frameworks in North America will likely threaten further damage to the climate and to forests.

Forest offset frameworks have been in development for the last couple of years. Details of these frameworks are now starting to emerge, and it doesn't look good.

The BC Pacific Carbon Trust has issued a call for $3 million worth of 'forest sector opportunities,' an apt term for a program that focuses on financial support only for intensive forestry activities: fertilization, select seed use and afforestation. Of these three, only afforestation has significant climate mitigation potential, but only in the long term.

Completely absent from the PCT's Forest Offset Guide are any activities with significant short-term mitigation potential focused on actually reducing emissions, for example from the avoided harvest of old-growth forests. Environmental groups responded harshly to this announcement, which followed a government pretense to listen to concerns about the plan.

The Western Climate Initiative has also just released its Offset System Essential Elements Draft Recommendations Paper for public comment. The document describes the essential elements that offset protocols must have to be eligible for use in the emerging WCI system. On at least three key points it comes up short. First, there is no strong test of additionality; WCI proposes to only consider additionality to legal requirements. Failing to do more than this means many projects will not 'offset' emissions at all, but simply allow them to continue without penalty.

Second, there are no ecological safeguards to ensure that no other forest values are sacrificed for carbon benefits. This type of safeguard would possibly prevent the type of fertilization projects promoted by B.C.'s Pacific Carbon Trust.

The third major failing apparent in the paper is the acceptance of a 100 year permanence requirement for 'sequestration' (forest) projects. It's based on a rule-of-thumb (that isn't strictly accurate) that CO2 has a 100-year lifetime in the atmosphere.

Really it's a bit of a rhetorical flourish: it sounds good but accomplishes little. Although 100 years sounds like a long time, what it really means is that forest offsets cease to be about reducing emissions, and at best only delay them. The same approach is emerging as a an apparent industry standard. You can also see it in the Pacific Carbon Trust's Forest Offset Guide and the Climate Action Registry's Forest Project Protocol

One of the dangers of establishing a false foundation of integrity is that there will inevitably be those that seek to undermine it. The second draft forest offset protocol developed by the Forest Carbon Standards Committee (not yet available for public review) proposes only 50 years rather than 100 ... apparently just because it's easier. This approach ceases to even be about delaying emissions, and actually becomes about a system of financial incentives to increase them over the long-term.

This has been my proposal: redefine permanence as permanent, and do not ever allow intentional reversals or emissions from forest carbon projects.

One of my core observations from having been involved in many of these offset discussions is that they become much more about making the system work and delivering workable incentives (or sometimes just rewards for good behaviour) than about actually reducing emissions.

The worst example of this that I've come across is the serious lobby by some of the American forest sector representatives participating in the Forest Carbon Standards Committee discussion to earn offset credits for the carbon stored in all wood products that are manufactured, regardless of where they come from and even without any consideration of a baseline. The apparent logic: wood is good, give us credits.

Add to all this the proposed Logging loophole from Copenhagen, which would allow developed countries to hide any increases in emissions and still generate fake credits if they want them and the outlook is grim. Forest-based climate mitigation is looking like a total shell game with no climate benefits and probable ecological harm.

A lot of this could be fixed by embracing a couple of simple principles when it comes to forests and climate: focus on real emission reductions and, do no ecological harm. Sadly, such basic tenets have so far been beyond reach of decision-makers on forest offsets.