Carbon Canopy: Pioneering Forest Protection in the Marketplace

Standing forests play a critical role in mitigating climate change.

Not only are they the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it long-term, but they protect our most vulnerable communities from the worst impacts of climate change by providing natural flood control and air conditioning and ensuring abundant clean drinking water. They also contribute to our overall well-being through providing a place to recreate and find spiritual renewal.

Forest protection emerged as a climate priority in the wake of the Paris Climate Agreement. In order to meet the ambitious goal to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must not only drastically cut carbon emissions but also reduce the high concentrations of carbon currently in the atmosphere. The best strategy for aggressively removing carbon from the atmosphere is to scale up forest protection around the world.

That means leaving as many trees in the ground as possible.

About ten years ago, after a successful grassroots campaign to convince the world’s largest retailers of paper products to adopt forest protection policies, Dogwood teamed up with Staples to lead a collaborative effort to protect forests in the Southeast, the region hit hardest by paper production. Over beer at Jack of the Wood in Asheville, Mark Buckley of Staples, Andrew Goldberg, former Dogwood staff member and current Director of the Appalachian Woodlands Alliance at Rainforest Alliance, and I discussed how the newly emerging carbon market might act as a powerful tool to protect forests.

The concept was fairly simple. If landowners could generate revenue for the carbon benefits associated with leaving trees standing more landowners would choose conservation-based management over destructive, industrial clearcutting. But the concept was just a concept without proof.

Driven by optimism and our belief that forests are one of our best defenses against climate change, we recruited a diverse coalition of landowners, conservation organizations, and corporations, including some of the biggest wood and paper product retailers and producers. This unlikely collaboration made up of Dogwood Alliance, Staples, Domtar, Home Depot, Columbia Forest Products, Forestland Group, Pacific Forest Trust, and many more, set out to pilot the region’s first rigorous forest carbon projects to test our theory and if it worked, to take the pilot projects to scale with a goal of getting hundreds of thousands of acres of forests into carbon management.

At the end of the day, this project was an experiment; it was risky as it had not been done before. As with any experiment, this project provided a rich opportunity for learning. In this case we were learning about how to quantify the carbon value of forests, how to navigate the technical complexities of forest carbon standards, how to access forest carbon markets, and what it was going to take to bring ambitious, paradigm-shifting projects to scale.

At the time, this was a whole new field, and we experimented together to learn the ins and outs of forest carbon and how to realize its economic value as a way to keep more trees standing and incentivize better management of working forests in the world’s largest wood producing region.

To say that The Carbon Canopy, was a very ambitious undertaking, is an understatement.

We completed one of the first projects in the country to meet the rigorous standards of the laws of the nation’s first and only viable carbon market in California. It required a lot of testing of different landowners, sizes, models, and certifiers. We learned that with smaller landowners (the vast majority in the South) managing for carbon isn’t feasible at this time. However, for larger innovative landowners it can work. In fact our first successful project was with the Forestland Group — one of the nation’s largest corporate forestland owners, on a 9,000 acre tract in Virginia. Since that project The Forestland Group has applied our model to put nearly a quarter of a million acres of forestland in carbon management, essentially leaving these trees standing.

We are deeply grateful for The Forestland Group and their willingness to embrace the kind of leading-edge change and innovation in the business sector that will be necessary to effectively address climate change. They literally went out on a limb with us, taking business risks that too few corporate landowners have been willing to take. They are a true role model, trendsetter and innovator in the forestry sector.

With any pioneering effort there were a lot of valuable lessons learned as a result of our work, including:

  • The value of forest carbon is not fully recognized by government policies or markets
  • Costs for doing carbon projects are prohibitive for most landowners
  • Landowners need technical support for project development
  • Other programs outside the current offset model need to be developed
  • There is great power in non-traditional collaborations and experimentation
  • Landowners don’t get carbon credits by clearcutting forests; they get them by leaving more trees in the ground

There is growing awareness among top economists that we need new economic models that actually recognize the value of the services that nature provides and the costs of degradation. Essentially, we must leave more trees standing and let more forests grow old again if we are to solve the climate crisis. If we did this, we would not only avoid climate catastrophe but also enjoy the multiple other benefits of standing forests. The Carbon Canopy Project developed some valuable tools in the struggle against climate change. It’s not a silver bullet, and we don’t need everyone to get carbon credits, but we do need to continue to invest in this kind of work, finding new ways to value standing forests.

In addition to catalyzing the management of 250,000 acres of forests for carbon benefits, the collaboration of the Carbon Canopy Project also led to the creation of new projects designed to tackle some of the biggest obstacles we faced. Rainforest Alliance, Domtar, Staples, Columbia Forest Products, and others launched the Appalachian Woodlands Alliance to work with small landowners in the region to overcome the barriers of cost and technical knowledge to increase the amount of working forests that are getting certified and managed better.

At Dogwood Alliance, working with another unique set of partners, we launched the Wetlands Forest Initiative this year with the mission to conserve, restore, and improve Southern wetland forests to strengthen our communities through science-based actions, diverse partnerships, and citizen and landowner engagement. The coastal plains of the South where many of these wetlands are found have some of the country’s highest carbon values and are critical to protecting our region’s most vulnerable communities from the worst impacts of climate change. While their value for timber is relatively low, their value for carbon, flood control and water protection are high.

Investing in these types of leading edge projects is a risk, but it’s one we still believe in.

We want to give special thanks to the many companies and foundations that invested in the Carbon Canopy work, including Home Depot, Coca-Cola, Merck Family Fund, Interface Global, Blue Moon Fund, Walker Foundation, Lyndhurst Fund, Oak Hill Fund and NRCS.

Read our new report on the lessons learned from the Carbon Canopy here.

Watch Mark Buckley from Staples, Jim Sitts at Columbia Forest Products, and Kaarsten Turner Dalby of the Forestland Group talk about their lessons learned from the Carbon Canopy work.

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