Emerging Efforts to Address Reforestation’s Most Challenging Problem
by: David Chen | June 20, 2022
The Difficulty of Financing Reforestation
Reforestation is emerging as a desirable and effective tool for carbon emission removals and has received increased attention from investors in the last several years. Investments in reforestation enable vital carbon removal from the atmosphere and offer innumerable ancillary environmental and social benefits, from creating critical habitats for biodiversity to improving water quality, groundwater recharge, and flood prevention for local communities. Despite the demand for the carbon removals and ancillary benefits that reforestation projects provide, the most challenging obstacle for reforestation-based carbon offset projects begins before a shovel ever touches the ground.
For nearly all reforestation carbon offset projects, the majority of costs, such as securing easements (to ensure long-term permanence) and planting activities, occur at the beginning of a project. In contrast, most carbon sequestration benefits from reforestation activities, and therefore the associated revenue from carbon offsets, accrues slowly over a long-time horizon. This delay between when costs occur and when revenue is realized has historically made reforestation challenging to finance and has hindered projects from getting off the ground; project developers cannot implement a reforestation project without a sizable initial investment, and investors looking to secure carbon credits can find it challenging to justify such an investment without assurances that expected carbon benefits from the investment would be delivered over an extended timeline.
Although financing challenges have hindered reforestation efforts for decades, several well-known carbon offset registries, such as the Climate Action Reserve and Verra, are developing new programs and instruments that aim to address those early finance hurdles and enable more project developers, like ClimeCo, to bring reforestation projects to market.
CAR’s Climate Forward Program
One approach currently offered is the Climate Action Reserve (CAR) Climate Forward program that seeks to drive forward-looking investments, such as reforestation, by allowing projects to generate ex ante credits called Forecasted Mitigation Units (FMUs) that can be utilized to help finance the high upfront cost of getting a project launched. As opposed to traditional carbon credits generated ex post or after emission reductions occur and can be used to offset existing sources of emissions, FMUs are an environmental instrument that are issued based on forecasted emission reductions and/or removals and are intended to offset a future stream of emissions from new economic activity (i.e., a new construction project or development). Reforestation projects under the Climate Forward program must meet stringent eligibility requirements to ensure that the carbon sequestration benefits are additional and minimize and account for the risk of natural or intentional “reversals,” a situation where the stored carbon associated with a project is released back to the atmosphere.
In late April this year, CAR released Version 2 of the Climate Forward Reforestation Methodology, with additional assurances that bolster the environmental integrity of FMUs generated from reforestation projects in the Climate Forward program. One of the most noteworthy additions to the Reforestation Methodology is the inclusion of a permanence risk buffer pool to account for unintentional reversals outside a project’s control, such as fire, insects, and disease. To account for these unavoidable reversals, the newly updated Reforestation Methodology will require every reforestation project in the Climate Forward program to contribute a certain percentage of FMUs into a “permanence risk pool,” which will be collected and held as insurance. If an unintentional reversal occurs, CAR will retire the corresponding amount of FMUs from the permanence risk pool to compensate for the negative impact of the reversal. These updated assurances to the Reforestation Methodology will help give buyers confidence that their FMUs represent carbon that is stored for the long term.
Verra’s Projected Carbon Unit
Carbon registry Verra is currently creating a solution for addressing this financing problem with a new commodity called a “Projected Carbon Unit” or “PCU.” PCUs are intended to help provide a source of upfront revenue to support the development of projects on Verra’s registry before the verification and issuance of Verra’s standard carbon offset or Verified Carbon Units (VCU).
Unlike the FMUs generated in the Climate Action Reserve program, PCUs are not ex ante but are an instrument that reflects the validated projection of expected emission reductions or removals and cannot be used for offsetting claims until the associated emission reductions or removals are successfully verified (i.e., after the reduction has occurred). Upon successful verification, the PCU’s will automatically be converted to ex post VCUs. PCUs are intended to be generated using Verra’s existing methodologies which theoretically could provide early finance for a multitude of nature-based solutions and other carbon offsetting project types. Verra has completed two rounds of public consultation and intends to operationalize and launch PCUs in September 2022.
The recent addition of the permanence risk buffer pool to the Climate Forward program and Verra’s development of PCUs are part of a larger trend of creative solutions being designed to help reforestation efforts meet the growing demand for nature-based solutions. I am excited to see these efforts by CAR and Verra and look forward to seeing even more future innovative solutions that will support these types of opportunities. The more we can reduce the hurdles of nature-based projects, the more our planet benefits.
About the Author
David Chen is passionate about nature-based and blue carbon project development. From replanting bald cypress trees in the Mississippi River delta to reestablishing mangroves forests in international countries, David knows the positive impact these projects have on biodiversity and coastal resiliency to improving local livelihoods. David is a Program Development Manager at ClimeCo and has a Master of Environmental Management from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and received his Bachelor of Science from the University of California, Riverside.