Granite Geek: $30 million project wonders if forests can store more carbon and still be useful

  • A wetland area in the 78-acre Robert Boone and Susan L. Boone Forest, which was donated to the New England Forestry Foundation by the Boones. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Published: 9/19/2022 5:57:33 PM
Modified: 9/19/2022 5:56:54 PM

We live in a capitalist society, for better or worse, so if we want something done we need to attach some money to it.

One of the things we want done in the face of the climate emergency is to have our forests absorb and store as much carbon as possible while still being valuable for wildlife and useful for humans. Is it possible to attach some money to this goal?

Enter the New England Forestry Foundation.

The Massachusetts-based nonprofit that owns and oversees hundreds of thousands of acres of preserved woodlands throughout the region has just received a five-year, $30 million grant – the biggest of its kind in the group’s 78-year history – to oversee a project that will encourage landowners to implement what are being called “climate-smart forest practices.”

And how can you get landowners on board with such a squishy-sounding endeavor? “Much of this will be figuring out how to make incentive payments,” said Alec Giffen of NEFF.

In other words, few people will do much unless there’s some money involved.

Figuring out how to make that work won’t be easy. “There will be a design phase, figuring out how to make the payments effective in attracting people. … Reverse auction? Fixed price? Different for all the different classes of landowners? There are a lot of things to consider,” he said.

More than 20 groups are involved in the project, ranging from lumber mills and loggers to research institutions and the Mi’kmaq Nation. They all know it is tough enough for owners of forests to balance preservation of wildlife habitat (don’t cut much) with prevention of wildfires (cut a fair amount) and making a living (cut a whole lot). Giffen acknowledged that adding carbon storage to the mix (cut nothing? cut some? cut a bunch?) makes it even harder.

“How do we change silvaculture practices so we store more carbon while maintaining harvest? It makes a very difficult enterprise to optimize among all those different values,” Giffen said. “Can you make enough money to satisfy investors, support biodiversity of habitat, increase productivity and increase carbon storage?”

The issue is particularly fraught because the concept of paying for natural storage of carbon has a deservedly bad rap. Companies seeking to greenwash their pollution loudly tout the “carbon offsets” that they’ve bought without much evidence that the money prompted behavior that wouldn’t have happened anyway (known as “additionality”) or hasn’t merely pushed bad behavior over to a neighboring site (known as “leakage”) and without doing much follow-through to ensure that the carbon stays stored.

Giffen says NEFF and other organizations are aware of these pitfalls. Much of what they’ll be doing is helping establish and quantify measurements and methods to avoid them.

“We need to get hold of the issue of additionality with real-world information. Not conceptual, not speculation, but actually measuring things,” said Giffen.

Same with leakage, he said: “We’re not saying we’re going to change harvesting here in New England just so somebody else will harvest somewhere else.”

And then there’s time. Five years is a decent interval for people but not much for trees. Part of the project’s goal will be to establish initial conditions “and then over time compare what happens on the lands where you pay for these practices vs. what happens on lands where you didn’t pay for them,” Giffen said.

The money for the project is coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities. (Like you, I’m tired of things being labeled “smart” but darned if I can think of a better term here.) It is distributing up to $2.8 billion for 70 projects covering things like dairy farming, maintenance of grasslands, soil improvement and even agricultural finance, a surprisingly complicated subset of the whole practice of money lending.

The scope of all those projects is a recognition that reducing the future damage from climate change will require alterations in virtually every part of the economy we’ve come to regard as normal. Some alterations will be small, some will be large, some will be so painful we’ll try very hard to avoid them.

But as we’ve seen already from disasters around the world, the cost of not making changes will be much, much higher. There is no status quo any more and we can’t pretend there is. Figuring out how best to adapt is our only recourse.




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