Forest Management Strategies for Creating Carbon Offsets

Forest Management Strategies for Creating Carbon Offsets
Did you know that land use change and deforestation contribute between 12–20% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions [1]? It is no wonder that the idea of harnessing the carbon market to reverse these trends has attracted substantial interest.

In our recent editorial series, Transparency in Developing Carbon Credits, we explain how offsets are generated, discuss the meaning of high-quality, and describe the difference between industrial, technology-based, and nature-based projects. As forest and ecosystem experts, we want to take you beyond that series and elaborate on what high-quality nature-based solutions (NBS) mean in terms of forest carbon accounting and how Improved Forest Management (IFM) practices can boost the potential to generate carbon credits.

IFM as a Tool in Managing Existing Carbon Stocks 

High-quality NBS projects remove and store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere while also benefiting local communities and biodiversity. Generally, NBS projects are classified into two primary sub-categories (or project types): protection (stewardship/avoided emission) and restoration (reforestation or afforestation/removed emissions). Protection projects revolve around preventing forest loss in high-risk areas, typically determined based on a 10-year historical trajectory of deforestation rates. Credits are allocated based on the number of carbon emissions (CO2e) avoided from entering the atmosphere due to successful forest conservation efforts. Meanwhile, restoration projects generate credits that reflect the annual carbon emissions removed from the atmosphere and are stored because of additional tree growth. These projects focus on expanding tree coverage through the following practices: 

  • Reforestation – the natural or intentional replenishing of existing forests that have been depleted, usually through deforestation but also after clearcutting
  • Afforestation – the establishment of a forest in an area where there was no recent tree cover
  • Agroforestry – cultivation, and use of trees and shrubs with crops and livestock in sustainable agricultural systems
  • Silvopastoral – the practice of integrating trees, forage, and the grazing of domesticated animals in a mutually beneficial way

Can you combine the benefits of both protection and restoration with IFM? Yes, you can. 

IFM projects focus on maximizing carbon emissions avoidance and removal potential of working forests, those subject to commercial timber harvest. A great example and triumphant story of carbon credits generated by an IFM project can be seen on Afognak Island in Southern Alaska. Here is an excellent example of how ClimeCo strives to ensure that our NBS projects go above and beyond the current standards 

The Afognak Forest Carbon Project, developed from a partnership between the American Land Conservancy and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, protects 8,200 acres of centuries-old Sitka spruce forests from any future logging exploitation, ensuring it will sequester and store carbon long into the future. Protecting unlogged Afognak’s forests will retain the carbon in the current forest biomass, sequester additional carbon in the conserved forests, and avoid emissions from logging and transportation.

The Afognak Forest in the state of Alaska
The Afognak Forest Carbon Project achieves net GHG emission reductions and removals by avoiding carbon emissions from logging in the baseline scenario. The Afognak properties were being managed for timber production by previous managers with logging plans and adjacent properties owned by the previous owners. The most plausible baseline scenario would be clearcut timber harvesting following minimum State of Alaska forest requirements and standard practices, evident from the slow recovery times resulting from previous logging in the project lands across Afognak Island.

The Afognak project scenario is conservation management, wherein the State of Alaska manages the properties for wilderness and ecosystem protection and enhancement activities under the terms of the title transfer agreement and federal conservation easement. Additionality is demonstrated as the project activity prevents planned harvest of the current native forests in perpetuity.

A comparison of Net Ecosystem Carbon Storage (Biomass + Deadwood + Belowground dead biomass) by Scenario (Year 1 = 2008).

Forest Carbon Accounting: How Are Credits Estimated?

High-quality NBS have a measurable and verifiable atmospheric impact. As demonstrated in the equation below, credits are based on the difference between baseline and project carbon emissions. Different carbon source/sink pools depend on the project type (protection, restoration, IFM) and the standard applied: Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) [2], Climate Action Reserve (CAR) [3], American Carbon Registry (ACR) [4]. For instance, the Afognak project follows VCS Methodology VM00012, providing for IFM in Temperate and Boreal Forests. The source/sink pools included in estimating baseline and project carbon emissions were standing live trees (aboveground biomass), standing dead trees, harvested wood products, roots (belowground biomass), and dead wood. Secondary effects may also be considered, such as burning logging slash and fossil fuels, including carbon emissions related to machinery during site preparation, and emissions from clearing shrubs in the project area.

Project reduction, minus baseline emissions, minus leakage emissions, equals total credits
Uncertainty in estimating carbon credits from NBS projects is expected. It arises from errors associated with measuring and modeling carbon stored in biomass, mapping errors, and various quantifying carbon impacts. These errors are estimated and accounted for by deducting error terms from calculated emission reductions and removals. Furthermore, there is the possibility of market forces causing the activities and carbon emissions to leak out of the project boundary [5]. Current standards require monitoring “leakage belts” and discounting credits to account for estimated leakage [6]. Finally, there is the possibility of project failure. To ensure that credits are effectively permanent (e.g., emissions reduction or removal will not be emitted within the next 100 years), some standards require a contribution of 1030% of the generated credits to an insurance buffer pool that backstops emissions associated with natural disturbances (e.g., fire, floods, hurricanes) or human-induced disturbance (e.g., illegal logging).

ClimeCo addresses uncertainty in forest carbon credit estimation through improved methodologies and data collection. By adopting conservative estimates, reduced uncertainty occurs. A rigorous MRV process is implemented to provide stakeholders with reliable information and reduce the risk of inaccurate reporting. 

The annual monitoring, reporting, and verification cycle (MRV)

We know forest carbon accounting can be complex, but transparency is crucial to ensure the credibility and effectiveness of NBS project types in mitigating carbon emissions. IFM can increase avoidance and removal of carbon emissions through planned activities over business-as-usual projections. This approach helps to sustainably manage forests and protect and provide economic development and biodiversity conservation opportunities. 

Our nature-based project development experts are rich in ecosystems and forest sciences. We are here to support and are ready to share our knowledge to help our clients make the best decisions for their business and our planet. To learn more about the environmental benefits of the Afognak, please read our previous blog, Beyond the Trees.

[1]  Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Cambridge University Press, 2022)
[2]  Verified Carbon Standard (2023, June 12)
[3]  Climate Action Reserve (2023, June 12)
[4]  American Carbon Registry (2023, June 12)

[5]  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2021)
[6]  Jenkins, W. A., Olander, L. P., & Murray, B. C. (2009)

About the Authors 

Juliana Magalhaes, a Senior Project Associate at ClimeCo, is passionate about turning science-based ideas into actions that promote the sustainability of forests. Her experience with forest growth data and understanding of multi-objective forest management is helping to develop high-quality NBS projects at ClimeCo. 

Karina Salimbayeva is a Senior Project Associate at ClimeCo, specializing in nature-based solutions. With a deep understanding of forestry and extensive experience in spatial analysis, Karina combines her passion for the environment with cutting-edge technology to inform decision-making in carbon projects.