Forestry Project Protocols for Mitigating GHG Emissions

Yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled that the US EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. This decision starts to establish, at the national level, the framework for nation-wide action to combat and mitigate climate change.

California has been the leader in regulating CO2 emissions, and establishing a registry where entities report and certify their emissions and emission offset projects. Going far beyond what any other state has done or even the Kyoto protocol, this registry (California Climate Action Registry ) has recognized the important role that forests can play in sequestering CO and thus reducing the amount of CO2 that stays in the atmosphere.

California's forests are among the most "carbon dense" ecosystems on earth. California's giant conifers are big, and they grow (i.e. capture carbon turning it into wood) relatively fast. To recognize the important role California's forests play in climate change establishes the rationale for establishing a monetary value for healthy, standing, growing forests that could significantly help conservation efforts. On the other hand, some may argue for getting credit for "business as usual forestry practices" or establishing "carbon plantations" of non-native, quick growing trees.

As they stand the draft protocols have several requirements:

  • The protocols require permanent protection of forestland, established by a permanent conservation easement
  • The protocols also require additionality, meaning forest management practices that will lead to more carbon sequestered than the legally allowable harvest limits.
  • Projects must promote and maintain California's native forests and utilize natural forest management practices (mixed ages and species)
  • The project must address leakage, so that the market does not shift to supporting unsustainable harvesting outside the project's boundaries

There are forest protocols for projects for reforestation, afforestation, conservation, and sustainable management, and there is ongoing research to establish a protocol for fuels reduction and fire management.

A lively debate is starting to take shape over how these protocols could and should be altered. The draft protocols were written with extensive input from many diverse forest interests. California is the first to tackle the complicated issue of how to quantify the role of forests in contributing to and mitigating climate change. The debate that we are starting to see in California is only a glimpse of what may come in the international arena.

What cannot be denied is that the carbon market is growing rapidly. Almost $30 billion dollars of CO2 were traded in 2006, and the market continues to grow rapidly. Regulations or caps on CO2 drive up the value of carbon.

The stricter the standards for measuring the climate benefits forestry projects the more likely it is that other countries and entities will agree to accept California's forestry projects as offsets. In other words, the stricter the standards, the higher the monetary value of forestland for carbon sequestration.

I'm interested to hear what people think about the potential role California's forests can play in mitigating climate change.

What do you think about the protocols?

What are the challenges, obstacles, threats, or opportunities you see in implementing or failing to adopt the protocols?



the many uses of trees

Maybe it's just my mood today, but my first reaction to this news is that it is just one more way to argue about the price tag we can put on nature.  At first glance it seems like a good thing to value California's forests as a great carbon sink. That means we have something of value here.  Something to be preserved, conserved, used wisely for the most good.

But as soon as you put that price tag on our forests, those in the business of making money will want to find a way to capitalize on that value. 

Who will gain from this type of valuation? And who will lose?  If we take an historic view, such as in outlined in the book Imperial San Francisco , it is not the people living in the Sierra who have gained from the value of our resources. Gold, water, timber resources and receipts have all streamed downhill.

Will this be the first time that a valuable commodity stays in place in order to enrich the Sierra, California and the world? Take a look at who owns the forests right now. Is that who has the opportunity to get rich from carbon trading? Most forests are in the hands of few private industries, the feds and the state, right?

I truly don't understand the economic mechanics of this new valuation process. And I think that bears a much closer look. 

Catherine Stifter

Quantifying the Value of Sierra Forests

Thanks for your comment Catherine. I appreciate your cynicism, if I may call it that, because I think it's a very legitimate reaction to this emerging market. The Sierra Nevada is no stranger to the exploitation of its natural resources, for the purposes of building great cities and lining the pockets of Wall Street executives, often to the detriment of people who live here and the health of our ecosystems.

I wonder, how does a region get ripped off in the same way, time and time again?

I think there are a few reasons for this.

1) We lack density and political strength to organize effectively as a regional community in order to change the rules of the game. Geographical barriers and cultural barriers (i.e. many people come here to get away from all that) and technological barriers (i.e. many areas of the Sierra Nevada do not have access to high speed internet) inhibit our ability to be really effectively proactive when new opportunities emerge. We do not have a strong presence in California's urban centers, and the majority of Californians do not understand the complex issues of the Sierra.

The Saving the Sierra project is one of the best efforts yet to overcome some of those obstacles.

The Sierra Business Council and other organizations have been consistently committed to hosting forums and conferences around the region in order to bring people together around important ideas and interests. Keep your ears peeled for the Sierra Business Council's new 2007 event series and attend an event or two near you. To join our mailing list, email

2) Yes, it's the American Dream, but it has been virtually impossible for individuals to participate in meaningful ways in these global markets. Sure, maybe the timber economy provided a lot Sierra residents with logging and mill jobs, but how many of those workers were able to buy land and start their own businesses?

I think technology has the potential to democratize the economy. With new and constantly evolving technology, it is possible to directly market our own products and services and make the new economy work for us.

3) The resource economy has traditionally been an economy based on the extraction and exploitation of nature (and people). The value of "nature" has been based on the ease of commodifying, extracting, and consuming certain isolated elements of it (minerals, trees, water).

In my opinion, this economy is shifting. Carbon can and will be commodified like other Sierra resources have been, but demand for it is directly tied to mitigating the biggest global environmental problem we may ever know (climate change). The carbon commodity market is slightly different than timber because it values living, growing trees, not board feet. The most important shift in the new natural resource economy however, is that it creates a way for people to pay for and invest in conservation, biodiversity, native forests, intact, healthy functioning ecossytems.

Perhaps the world should respect the inherent value of nature; perhaps putting $$ figures on nature should be completely repulsive. I don't know, but I don't really see the world heading in that direction without a little bit of help.

There are many many uncertainties related to how the carbon market will actually evolve. There is the possibility that monoculture carbon plantations of non-native trees become more valuable than old growth redwood forests. It is not incredibly unlikely that Dupont, Monsanto, Chevron, and the like will somehow manage to snatch up all the profits of Sierra Nevada carbon. If we sit back and wait for it to happen, it probably will.

My optimism lies in the fact that California is right at the center of this debate, and Sierrans can influence this process. The Sierra Nevada is full of small private landowners (in addition to large tracts of public lands). If we, as a community, can start to imagine what it would mean for millions or billions of dollars coming to the Sierra Nevada for our communities to act as stewards of our forests and farms, rivers and lakes, then maybe we will realize there is enough at stake to engage in this process now.

Sierrans Must Prevail

I live in NW Arkansas,  but I  was born and raised in California. I have been in almost every forest in the state of California and I must say that I too, even though I am not residing, feel that the communities must be involved in the protection of these great vast and beautiful ecosystems, even if it means getting in bed with the carbon snatchers. If no one does anything, before you know it the rich will get richer and well you know the rest. The money would not only profit private landowners and communities in the Sierras, it will promote goodwill with people like me who like to spend my money in those communities visiting all the beautiful places I like so much. It would profit the sustainment of the forests which in turn would continue to enrich the lives of many.

Go get um,


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