Maintaining and fortifying forests is a powerful solution to reversing a changing climate. They are carbon dioxide absorbers and provide other environmental benefits like regulating water flows and protecting biodiversity. Carbon sequestration and storage in trees is one of the most scalable and affordable natural solutions to reducing harmful emissions, according to experts. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that nature-based solutions could deliver a third of the emissions reductions necessary to limit global temperatures from rising over 2°C by 2030.
One increasingly popular way that forests are being utilized is through corporate offset programs where they can reduce their own CO2 footprints by purchasing carbon credits from forest owners. So far, this win-win situation has primarily involved owners of large forest tracts of at least 5,000 acres, while forest parcels of 20-1,000 acres account for less than 1 percent of the acres used for carbon credit programs.
This number is significant because the largest portion (38 percent) of American forests are 20-1000-acre parcels owned by families or individuals. This inequity results in nearly 300 million acres of possible carbon-sequestering forest land not being utilized. “Engaging and enrolling small private landowners in natural climate solutions programs is critical in the race to tackle climate change,” said Josh Parrish, director of the American Forest Carbon Initiative at the Nature Conservancy.
The Nature Conservancy has partnered with The American Forest Foundation for a pilot program aimed to get family forests involved in carbon migration projects. This initiative, the Family Forest Carbon Program, helps small forest owners overcome the main obstacles — carbon market access, lack of forest management expertise, and cost – that have typically prevented them from participating in carbon credit projects. The FFCP’s system bases its carbon measurements on forest stock changes, instead of the most costly carbon inventory method, and this approach can reduce forest landowners’ costs by 75 percent.
The FFCP offers landowners 10-20 year contracts that feature installment payments if they participate in one of two programs. The Growing Mature Forests practice promotes the growth of larger, higher-quality trees by limiting harvesting over a 20-year contract period. The Enhancing Future Forests practice aims to have landowners reduce competing vegetation following or preceding a regeneration harvest to create flourishing new forests. The FFCP also covers the majority of costs for and pays for a forester to consult with the small forest owner.
The 10-20 year length of the FFCP’s contracts is a particularly attractive feature since many other carbon credit program contracts last up to 99 years. Paul Catanzaro, of the Family Forest Research Center, calls this type of time commitment “a nice balance,” noting that it is short enough not to make forest owners feel burdened while long enough to create some significant carbon gains.
Involving small forest owners in these corporate carbon credit initiatives has crucial “big picture” ramifications too; a Fitch Ratings report last year indicated that demand for offsets will exceed supply by 2025 so there is a growing need to have more forest land available for these types of programs.
Incentivizing landowners to improve their forestry techniques and carbon sequestering not only serves to increase carbon absorption but also cuts down on carbon emissions arising from forestry mismanagement. A recent Nature Conservancy-led study found that 267 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) – comparable to removing 57 million cars from the road – could be avoided annually through improved forest management.
The Family Forest Carbon Program, whose pilot program is currently being conducted in Pennsylvania, got a huge boost last year when Amazon, through its Right Now Climate Fund, committed $10 million to the FFCP and its affiliated, Vermont-based Forest Carbon Co-op initiative. This funding will help to expand these programs around the 179 million acres along the Appalachian Mountain region. This region holds a significant opportunity for carbon sequestering, and promotes economic and environmental benefits in and beyond the region too.
The Nature Conservancy estimates that 18.5 million tons of carbon emissions could be offset by 2031 if the FFCP is expanded to four million acres of family forests.
The success of the Family Forest Carbon Program, however, extends beyond mere numbers. According FFCP director Christine Cadigan, “success means building a program that works for small landowners, provides inclusive opportunities for participation in forest carbon projects, infuses private climate finance and conservation activities into regions that would not have otherwise benefited, and importantly, meaningfully mitigates climate change by providing credible additional carbon storage and sequestration opportunities.”