Although reforestation has long been recognized for its promise to extract large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and offer other ecological benefits, it is only now beginning to gather attention at a scale that could possibly approach that of its potential. One way we are able to implement reforestation initiatives at an impactful level is due to advance investments and forward crediting, making now a great time to take stock of how reforestation can contribute to climate change mitigation efforts.
The Climate Action Reserve recently convened a panel to discuss the opportunities and challenges around reforestation as well as how investments are being set up to support reforestation projects. Below are insights and quote highlights from: PJ Marshall, Founder and Executive Director, Restore the Earth; Anastasia Behr, Technology & Sustainability Leader, Dow; Lisa Gonzales-Kramer, Environmental Scientist/Project Manager, California State Parks; and Jeremy Manion, Lead of Forestry Carbon Markets and Natural Climate Solutions, Arbor Day Foundation.
Nature-based solutions, such as reforestation, provide excellent opportunities to achieve climate solutions and important co-benefits
“For any organization or corporation that’s addressing the future carbon neutral goals, landscape scale restoration is really a cost effective and simple nature-based solution to removing carbon out of the atmosphere. And if you look at reforestation along with grasslands and wetlands, there really is the ability to provide for 1/3 of the carbon emission reduction goals for the 2030 Paris Agreement. There’s been a big buzz and promotion about mobilizing funding and support for restoring our forests. So, we’re gaining opportunities for funding, and we’re also gaining some innovative approaches for accounting, forecasting and accrediting carbon emissions,” said PJ Marshall.
“There are a lot of opportunities for carbon projects using nature-based solutions, and specifically, reforestation. As somebody is looking at specific opportunities, they would be looking for a myriad of factors, such as permanence, and we know that varies based on ecosystem, location, and whether or not that entity is state owned or is on a conservation easement. I would also say that when looking for reforestation projects, the one thing that is not always understood is that we’re looking at reforestation mostly. The reforestation projects are looking at ecosystem restoration, not specifically optimizing for carbon. And so those co-benefits are going to be extremely important to consider as a company evaluates a project, again, getting back to the measurement of those co-benefits. More than any other project type, reforestation has to encompass even more than the carbon optimization,” said Lisa Gonzales-Kramer.
“We need additional focus on nature-based solutions. When you think about, say insulation, you put it in the house and the house uses less energy to operate. You’re reducing your emissions in the future, but you’re not capturing anything out of the atmosphere that’s currently there. One of the critical elements of the Restore the Earth project we support was the fact that this project allowed us to articulate the co-benefits of the carbon reduction and the reforestation project in Louisiana, where we do have facilities. For us, being able to quantify and pursue opportunity in the water quality space was one of the internal values added to the fact that it generates carbon reductions,” said Anastasia Behr.
“A lot of the folks that we work with in the Mississippi Delta are at the very impoverished part of the country. And so there’s an environmental and social justice and equity piece to it as well. And, you know, we need to do a better job of tracking the economic impact that exists with these reforestation projects because ultimately rural economies, whether in the US or internationally, have been left out of a lot of economic gains over the last few decades,” said Jeremy Manion.
A case study in reforestation: the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Reforestation Project
“The Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Reforestation Project started in 2007, so we’re going on 13 years now of experience with a forest carbon project. The Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Reforestation Project was initiated in the aftermath of the 2003 Cedar Fire, which burned over 273,000 acres in San Diego County. It was the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history for 14 years and it burned through our 25,000 acre park at a high intensity over thousands of contiguous acres. The park had almost 10,000 acres of forest habitat at the headwaters of three San Diego County watersheds prior to the fire. And the fire burned virtually everything down to bare mineral soil. It incinerated the seed bank that normally holds the forest duff, the seeds in that forest litter for regeneration, and it also destroyed the forest canopy, which would normally produce more seeds. So there really was no way for the forest to naturally regenerate on its own. It lost its canopy and the seed bank. In previous fires, there had been patches of forest burned at lower intensity or not at all, so there were ways for the forest to recover previous to this. In Cuyamaca, however, this was the first time that the forest could not recover to any degree.
“So California State Parks initiated the reforestation project in 2007 with the goal of restoring about 25% of the pre-fire forest habitat. This is where our action varied from the baseline of business as usual. We stepped in to say, ‘OK. We’ve lost too much of this resource and it’s so important that we do need to restore this.’ And that’s the additionality that’s a requirement of every forest carbon project. We are planting in a mosaic of restored areas, and then as the trees mature, we are expecting that these restored areas will act as centers of seed dispersal and will assist with additional recovery of the sky island forest over time. We mimic a complex relationship between the different vegetation types and really make it an ecosystem mosaic as it was before the fire.
“It was with the help of a sister agency, Cal Fire, and in conversation with the Climate Action Reserve and their revision of the Forest Project Protocol to include projects on public lands, and in conversation with our first funding partner, American Forest, that created this synergy of all of these things coming together at the same time that really allowed us to find ways to restore our sky island habitat,” said Lisa Gonzales-Kramer.
The challenges of reforestation projects: funding and permanence
“Reforestation projects are complex, and for anyone doing a forest carbon project, part of the conversation is how do you get these projects funded. If it’s through a carbon agreement, that carbon credit is not issued until the forest actually has grown, and then is measured, and the credits are issued after they’re verified. The initial investment has to be a large investment upfront, with a very long time of waiting. The Cuyamaca project has a 100-year crediting period. That’s one of the challenges around reforestation projects—to enlist funders or corporations interested in putting that money upfront to help do the work and wait for the credits. And that is one reason, why the Climate Forward* program is really essential for allowing projects like ours to be replicated across the larger landscape. The other difficulty for attracting funders is the fact that reforestation credits are more expensive than any other carbon credits that are available. The challenge and opportunity for us is to effectively communicate the costs involved in actually managing these forests as carbon sinks, as ecosystems, and all of the co-benefits that are that come out of that,” said Lisa Gonzales-Kramer.
“As these kinds of greater awareness of the potential for reforestation rollout, eg Trillion Tree program, the challenge in looking at some of that is the permanence of those potential projects, which could depend on the stability around the globe, and in government, and in land ownership, etc. Any tree going into the ground is of value, but where folks want to make a major investment, they want it to be in something that’s going to have impact not only locally and nationally, but maybe globally, so it’s important to look for high quality reforestation projects and know how to evaluate or begin to inform themselves on high quality reforestation projects,” said PJ Marshall.
“Private landowners across the US own around 60% to 2/3 of the land. That’s where we’ve had to have incentives to make sure that those landowners can not only get paid for carbon, but also have other diversified income streams that keep those forests there for the project term and even longer. And that is in addition to the payments for carbon. So, some money for some selective harvesting of the trees. We usually do a very dense planting at first on a lot of our carbon projects in the Mississippi River Delta, for example. And then start thinning those trees out at about year 10 to 15 and continue to manage that forest through year 40 to mimic a hardwood natural ecosystem. So, we have carbon credits and timber selective harvesting. We also have folks coming to those private landowners for recreational activities, hunting, fishing, hiking, camping. And then there’s money from the USDA for wetland and conservation protection. When you start layering these income streams available for the landowners that increases the level of permanence in addition to what the standards and methodologies require,” said Jeremy Manion.
Four types of reforestation allow businesses to find the right type of reforestation to fit their goals
“One of the things that we’ve been doing is just trying to demystify the current options that exist related to reforestation today. We really try to understand what the business goal is and try to find the right type of reforestation to fit that goal. We’ve drawn four main types of reforestation. The first two are non-market-based solutions. One is doing community tree plantings and distribution events in cities and towns around the US and around the world. And these are good opportunities for corporations to get their employees and customers engaged in tree planning activities and in green infrastructure projects in more urban environments. The second type is looking at large-scale reforestation of public land, of the federal, state, county level, and working with folks like Lisa can make sure that we can drive additional funding to high quality projects. And a lot of our partners’ goals there are looking at watershed health, biomass accounting.
“The other two are carbon market programs. Forward looking units like with Climate Forward* that are designed to address future emissions. We’re still navigating through that process and we see some good potential on public lands. What we’re trying to figure out is how do companies appropriately make claim with these future emission profiles. And then we have the verified ex post credits, in which the emission removal has already taken place. That’s where we’re focusing on climate neutrality goals, carbon removal goals, net zero goals,” said Jeremy Manion.
New trends in reforestation
“So some things that we’re seeing that we’re taking special note for corporations right now is this shift in the market from companies that have been participating in buying reforestation carbon credits to not just want to offtake the credits, but to find a way to help expand these projects, help find a way to plant more trees, help find ways to quantify water benefits. And so, with that happening, we’re seeing opportunities to start to be able to stack investment and for corporations to be able to stack their goals together, not only on the carbon front, but on the water replenishment quality and quantity side. We’re seeing more and more corporations in addition to their carbon commitment, also setting tree planting goals, and trying to preserve large tracts of acreages or hectares. We’re trying to not only think about the carbon, which is what we transact these credits on, but all the other co-benefits getting much more detailed and quantified and telling that story, which helps companies validate these investments and want to do greater things moving forward,” said Jeremy Manion.
“How do we continue to manage and guarantee those trees are going to stay there and those ecosystem services is going to be performed? That’s where I think the Climate Forward* methodology has an interesting opportunity—to take the Forecasted Mitigation Units (FMUs) and convert them to the traditional offset unit, the CRT unit, over time. And I think that’s really where there’s a really interesting opportunity for corporations to make these investments upfront where the project makes sense, and then, as they make the claim, possibly make that conversion to the ex post unit, where the removal has already taken place,” said Jeremy Manion.
*The Climate Forward Reforestation Forecast Methodology provides ex ante crediting to shift project economics forward for reforestation carbon projects. For reforestation projects to occur, investment capital is required early in the process – for site acquisition, site preparation, seedlings, planting, and management. Under an offsets program, the project owner may have to wait decades for the reforested trees to grow sufficiently to sequester large amounts of carbon before seeing a return on investment through the sale of offsets. Under Climate Forward, the early investments necessary to cover initial costs for reforestation project economics to make sense see an earlier return on investment through FMUs, which are earned early in the project lifespan and can be sold to companies that are looking to mitigate emissions from future projects, whether due to compliance with regulations such as the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) or due to voluntary commitments such as net zero building development.