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Addressing Criticism of Improved Forest Management Carbon Projects

Published: March 21, 2022 by Editorial Team

Over the last few years, there have been a series of articles criticizing forest carbon offset projects. Specifically, they have criticized a limited set of Improved Forest Management (IFM) projects as not actually providing the emissions reduction benefits that were claimed. In a nutshell, the assertion is that many credits have been generated and sold that do not represent a real change of behavior, i.e. companies are paying for carbon that is and would have been sequestered anyway.

We have addressed some of the core misconceptions around this in several previous posts (linked below), but I wanted to specifically address some inaccuracies that have surfaced recently.

First, forest and other carbon projects are not actually trying to measure change of behavior as individual behavior is difficult if not impossible to predict. A forest that from an organizational or economic perspective may seem secure today may be cut tomorrow if and when conditions change. Past behavior and good intentions do not guarantee additional carbon sequestration and storage into the future. By entering a forest carbon contract, forest landowners commit to managing for carbon stocks beyond their regulatory obligations and financial incentives. This is important as land changes hands, organizations and landowners experience financial difficulties, harvesting technology improves, and timber prices generally go up over time. Forest carbon stocks are not truly protected unless there are legal constraints on harvesting that transfer with the property. That is what forest carbon projects provide.

Second, timber that is currently unmerchantable or inaccessible should not be sold as carbon credits. Carbon project developers operating under scientifically peer-reviewed registry protocols must extensively document that the timber and carbon being preserved and sold as carbon credits is in fact merchantable and that local demand and milling capacity exist to process it. Extensive and painstaking research and analysis goes into building project-specific baselines that outline the most realistic and economically optimal forest management strategy for each landowner and forest. Any existing constraints on timber harvesting, be they organizational mission, state forest practices act, or legal easements, must be considered. Beyond this, we interview local foresters, review practices on similar forestlands and analyze aerial imagery to ensure that baseline scenarios are in line with common regional practices. All of this is then reviewed and scrutinized by an objective third-party auditor. Any assertion that these factors aren’t considered is inaccurate.

Third, current voluntary and compliance market registry approved protocols do not allow the sale of carbon that is already legally protected. Any existing legal constraints on timber harvesting, be they organizational, state forest practice laws, or property restrictions (i.e. conservation easements), must be accounted for. If a pre-existing conservation easement truly prohibits timber harvesting (very few do) then that land is not eligible to generate carbon offsets. Again, any assertion to the contrary is completely inaccurate. 

Many of the market improvements that recent articles seem to be advocating for are already incorporated in existing protocols that are regularly updated to integrate the latest scientific understanding and improve accuracy and rigor. The American Carbon Registry is in the process of updating their voluntary IFM protocol. I would invite anyone who thinks these projects lack vigor to read it and/or the California Air Resource Board’s IFM protocol. (Linked below)

Forest carbon projects legally protect and increase forest carbon stores for between 40 and 100 years depending on the registry. The coming century promises to be full of challenges associated with climate change. Protecting these carbon forests will be critical to mitigating climate change and building community resilience by providing a myriad of co-benefits in addition to carbon sequestration such as heat mitigation, wildlife habitat, and clean water.

As one of the oldest carbon market entities in the U.S. we invite good faith debate and discussions that help ensure offset projects are having their intended climatic effect. Good faith debate starts with good information.

News + Resources

Previous Blog Posts on Additionality and Carbon Accounting

ACR IFM Protocol:

CARB IFM Protocol: