Carbon Forestry: Environmental Asset Or Liability?

Carbon forestry provides a low-cost and low-risk means for investors to hedge their carbon responsibilities.

John Gould asks how a new type of arboreal landscape, designed to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, will impact on wider issues such as sustainability and biodiversity.

John Gould asks how a new type of arboreal landscape, designed to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, will impact on wider issues such as sustainability and biodiversity.


Imagine a forest landscape where every tree is aligned and equally spaced apart. A forest where there are no sounds, no undergrowth and a distinct lack of species. Could this be the fate of our environment as carbon forestry becomes a common way to offset greenhouse gas emissions? Or, could it supplement reforestation programs and slowly ease the biodiversity crisis?


Post-Kyoto there has been strong support for global emissions to be ‘capped’. Key nations, including Australia, Norway and Japan, have already started to place a price on carbon, with internal stakeholders now having a legal obligation to pay for the greenhouse gasses they emit. One strategy that has been adopted by these ‘compliance’ markets – as well as many ‘voluntary’ markets – includes the purchasing of carbon credits that are linked with the forestry sector. Referred to as ‘carbon forestry’, a new forest is established on degraded land in order to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, thereby allowing an investor to offset their emissions output.


According to a 2011 report by the monitoring and analysis agency Ecosystem Marketplace over 30 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) was contracted across forest markets in 2010. The emergence of carbon forestry is particularly evident in Australia, where an estimated sixty five thousand hectares of forests have been planted for the purpose of carbon sequestration. Similarly, more than one thousand hectares of ‘for purpose’ woodland have been created in the United Kingdom through the Forestry Commission, one of the country’s largest land managers.


It is clear that carbon forestry provides a low-cost and low-risk means for investors to hedge their carbon responsibilities. Yet whether these increasingly prominent plantations enhance the aesthetics of the landscape, or potential for biodiversity within those landscapes is questionable.


In general, carbon forests have the potential to offer a variety of benefits for the environment. Not only do they provide habitat that can be used by a range of vertebrate and invertebrate species for food and shelter, they may also act as ‘green corridors’ that link remnant patches of native vegetation. This could be particularly beneficial for certain groups of species such as butterflies and moths whose populations have been detrimentally impacted by the defragmentation of suitable habitat.


The environmental benefits of carbon forests are particularly evident when they have been established for other purposes in addition to carbon sequestration. These ‘environmental plantings’ will often include a mix of plant types that have been used to replicate a native ecological system, and will invariably support a much greater number of species when compared to other plantation regimes, such as  monocultures. In these single species plantations the trees are planted in artificial alignment in order to optimise the carbon-sinking properties of the site.


However, Patrick Smith, a spokesperson for CO2 Australia, one of country’s leading carbon economy specialist argues that ‘it's important to remember that the environmental benefits offered by even the simplest carbon forest are typically much greater than the cropping and grazing systems they replace’. He adds that the 'glass half empty' people will emphasise that it's not as good as natural bush. But the 'glass half full' people point out that it's a lot better than wheat.’


Although the biodiversity found in monoculture plantations will be a subset of that found in primary forests or even environmental plantings, they may still contribute to the conservation of native wildlife if locally-adapted tree species are used. Research carried out by the CRC Future Farm Industries and CSIRO, a leading scientific body in Australia, have shown monoculture systems – specifically oil mallees – to provide supplementary habitat when positioned next to primary vegetation. However, this is not the case when a site has been re-generated using an alien species. In light of this, are there any guidelines to ensure that such forests are established with the environment in mind?


The standards that must be met during ‘carbon reforestation’ are highlighted in the Marrakech Accords, which are a set of agreements – reached by parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – concerning how the Kyoto Protocol targets should be met. Countries that are a signatory to this have affirmed ‘that the implementation of forestry activities [should] contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable use of natural resources’. However, it must be stated that the wording used throughout the Marrakech Accords is highly subjective, with no limits being set on the use of non-indigenous tree species.


Alejadnro Caparro from the Institute of Economics and Geography (IEG) highlights the fact that an investor will exploit a fast-growing alien species over an indigenous alternative – especially when there are no strict regulations – due to their high carbon sequestration value. As such, creating any sort of economic incentive for carbon forestry within the current market is expected to yield plantations that have a low or negative biodiversity value.


But, some hopeful signs are starting to emerge. In the UK, the vast majority of forest carbon schemes are certified by the UK Woodland Assurance Scheme (UKWAS), which covers areas of biodiversity, sustainable management and environmental impact.


With the market continuing to develop and evolve, companies are also starting to pursue more bio-diverse planting styles. Take the CO2 Australia Group as an example. According to Patrick Smith, ‘[the company] will be planting over two thousand hectares of high quality plantings over the next few years’.


In order to maintain the biodiversity value of our natural landscapes, it may be necessary to look at alternative carbon forestry models. Recent attention has been placed on the possibility for carbon credits to be made by simply protecting existing forest areas. By placing a price on the carbon that is already stored in primary forests, the incentive to cut them down for timber or agricultural production would be weaker than the incentive to maintain them in their current state. This form of crediting could provide an opportunity for nations to finance the establishment of protected areas, thereby bringing biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration together into a mutually consistent agenda.

There are still many questions to be answered and debates to be had surrounding the economic and ecological implications of carbon forestry and its regulation. Many of these debates will play out in the political arena. However, if the public backlash against the UK government’s policy of selling off woodlands earlier this year is an indicator of how strongly we feel about our forests, decisions on carbon forestry are likely to be heavily influenced by public opinion and pressure.

John Gould is a third year student studying a Bachelor of Science at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

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