Mitigating Climate Change through Forest Planning

Jagdish Poudel, M.Sc., relaxes in an Oregon forest, a huge carbon sink. Photo: Courtesy Jagdish Poudel

Until recently, my research, work, and activities have been based in the Himalayas. I previously wrote three articles for Blue Planet Green Living, in which I discussed the impacts of climate change in my homeland, Nepal. My interest in climate change has grown deeper and deeper as I’ve started to look at mitigation measures rather than merely impacts.

It’s been two months since I arrived in Portland, Oregon, a beautiful place for forests and nature. At World Forestry Institute, I am investigating the role of the forest in climate-change mitigation by examining one community forest in Nepal and a small, private woodland in Oregon. My goal is to learn about the issues and find possible solutions that different countries can adapt for climate-change mitigation.

This Nepalese gentleman is explaining how thinning forests is beneficial. Photo: Courtesy Jagdish Poudel

Forests are the second-largest source of carbon emission (17.4%) due to deforestation and degradation in developing countries like Nepal. So, it’s critically important that sustainable forest management practices should not add sources of emission and must strike a balance between maintaining carbon stock and earning a livelihood.

Avoiding deforestation has great potential to reduce carbon emissions. Since deforestation is currently external to carbon compliance requirements, it could be a substantial source of forest carbon offsets.

At the project level, preventing deforestation is a relatively simple, straightforward action. Contracts, easements, and other legal instruments can be created to assure that a site is not cleared of its timber and firewood. However, avoiding deforestation in one site is particularly prone to causing “leakage” — deforestation of another site — to provide the desired products or outcomes. Forest sequestration is competitive with other abatement measures and may play a significant role in national and global climate-mitigation strategies.

At the stand level, disturbances causes several things to occur: First, they redistribute the existing carbon stock by transferring carbon from living materials, both above- and below-ground, to the dead, organic-matter pools. As the carbon uptake by living trees is interrupted and the emissions from decomposition increase, a disturbed forest stand shifts from carbon sink to carbon source relative to the atmosphere. And it remains in the source phase until carbon uptake by the new generation of trees exceeds emissions from decomposing, dead, organic materials.

The forest-based carbon offset program requires having land capable of supporting a forest, but currently lacking a manageable stand of trees or seedlings. These lands are likely to remain in a non-forested condition unless financial assistance is provided to plant and establish trees on a particular site. The need for financial assistance is important because carbon programs must create new forested land in order to claim credit for carbon offsets.

On the other hand, carbon trading will only be attractive when the benefits from carbon management exceed the benefits from existing management. Community forest management (CFM) already provides incentives for forest management and has been successful in Nepal.

Land-use planning must include consideration of livelihoods; for example, these people are using forest resources (fodder) for their livestock. Photo: Courtesy Jagdish Poudel

In Nepal, CFM is practiced on slopes that are non-arable and have no alternative possible use. There is a high opportunity cost on these slopes, as the forest provides numerous inputs for subsistence livelihood (e.g., fuel wood, fodder, timber, and non-timber forest products or NTFP), which might be forgone under a carbon-management regimen. It is for these products that local people are conserving their forest now, without carbon revenue. Maintaining existing forests may be one of the least costly options for offsetting carbon and an inexpensive way to mitigate climate change in countries like Nepal.

Some of the leakage problem can be addressed by determining offsets for avoided deforestation at the national or regional level. Proponents of including an aggregate national total for avoided deforestation argue that it lowers compliance costs, since avoiding deforestation can be substantially less expensive than active forestry or other emission-reduction or sequestration efforts. It also provides compensation to developing, tropical nations.

Opponents argue that carbon trading would be a disincentive to, and would raise eventual costs for, developing countries to participate in global carbon-emission reduction efforts. They say it would benefit the political elite of developing nations, while their indigenous peoples would be further disenfranchised. And it would delay technological development and implementation to reduce emissions in the industries that cause the emissions.

With 57% private forest-land ownership in Oregon, these forests have great opportunity to go into the carbon market. Only a few farmers are managing their forests for carbon credits in this voluntary market. They seem happy to be involved and encourage others to get involved in the forest carbon project.

A recent EPA report (2005) assessed the current growth of carbon stores on land in the U.S. at 0.225 Pg*C/yr (offsetting 12% of U.S. fossil fuel emissions) with forests responsible for 90% of the estimated carbon sink. Incentives for additional carbon sequestration on land at $55/ton of carbon are projected to generate an additional carbon sink in the U.S. of 0.18 PgC/yr on average by 2025.

Poudel teaches students about sequestering carbon in forests. Photo: Courtesy Jagdish Poudel

Similarly, scientists from the Pacific Northwest Research Station and the Oregon Department of Forestry quantified the carbon storage maintained by the land-use planning program in Western Oregon. They found these gains were equivalent to avoiding 1.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually — the amount of carbon that would have been emitted by 395,000 cars in a year. Had the 1.7 million metric tons of stored carbon been released through development, Oregon’s annual increase in CO2 emissions between 1990 and 2000 would have been three times what it actually was. As policymakers look for ways to mitigate climate change, land-use planning is a proven tool with measurable results.

Experts, environmentalists, foresters, forest landowners, and policymakers alike have entered into this debate to analyze the voluntary carbon market and its future. Forest carbon is one of the fastest-growing bodies of research in the field today. I am hopeful, after completion of my research, that I will be able to find a new model and design to involve forest farmers in the carbon market and take some positive steps toward global climate-change mitigation. I’ll keep you posted.

*A picogram (Pg) is 0ne-trillionth (10-12) of a gram.

Jagdish Poudel, M.Sc.

Contributing Writer

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