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Innovative solutions for carbon rooted in family forests

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Landowner and forester scout property to see how forest might be able to sequester more carbon. Source: American Forest Foundation.

This article is sponsored by American Forest Foundation.

Over the past year, we have seen corporations such as Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks set ambitious goals to drive towards net zero or net positive emissions. At the same time, organizations such as the Science Based Targets Initiative, CDP and the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance have seen their member ranks increase as more businesses have set reduction goals for their greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge has been in determining the specific actions that can be taken to meet these goals. 

The companies that stand out as true climate leaders are taking the right approach: Their plans lead with reducing their emissions through changes in operations — removing inefficiencies, capitalizing on new technologies and moving to a clean energy future. Only then do they look at other options such as carbon offsetting. 

The truth is for most companies some carbon emissions are unavoidable due to necessary business operations. Once all other reduction options have been exhausted, one strategy is to offset emissions by purchasing verified carbon credits through a carbon market that catalyzes natural climate solutions.

Natural climate solutions offer an opportunity to conserve, restore or improve land and forests that sequester carbon. U.S. and global studies have demonstrated that nature can serve as an immediate bridge to a low carbon future. 

Yet carbon markets are complex and are challenged to efficiently deliver the benefits desired by companies and their customers. Rather than abandon these markets entirely, innovation must be a top priority to find credible solutions that work — both for companies and nature.

The American Forest Foundation (AFF) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are focusing on this need for innovation with their new program, the Family Forest Carbon Program. The program is a different take on carbon market projects — addressing the demand for more, verified carbon credits and providing access to a wider range of forestland, based on sound science that is essential to long-term success.

More specifically, the Family Forest Carbon Program opens carbon markets to small family forest owners in the United States. Across the nation, 21 million families and individuals collectively own the largest portion — 38 percent — of all forests. Owning tracts between 20 and 1,000 acres, these small landowners have been unable to participate in existing carbon markets due to high transaction costs.  In fact, less than 1 percent of the acres in existing carbon projects are from these smaller forest holdings. 

The Family Forest Carbon Program removes the cost and complexity barriers that have prevented family forest owners from participation by using a practice-based approach: Landowners are given incentive payments to implement sustainable forest practices that increase the sequestration and storage of carbon, while also improving the health of the forest.

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Pennsylvania family forest landowner eligible to participate in the Family Forest Carbon Program Source: American Forest Foundation.

Monitoring and measurement of carbon is then conducted based on the observed changes in their forest from these practices, rather than through time-intensive carbon inventories. This means the program is able to deliver more than 80 percent of direct costs directly to landowners as incentives and technical assistance.

Simultaneously, the program is expanding the supply of carbon credits to the marketplace to meet the demands from corporations and to provide rural family landowners a new opportunity to generate income from their land. This engagement with family landowners delivers economic benefits to the places where forests are located, giving companies an opportunity to support rural communities, often where they source forest products. 

Beyond just carbon, the Family Forest Carbon Program provides a range of co-benefits that address vital issues including biodiversity, wildlife habitat, reduced wildfire risk and ecosystem resilience. As companies increasingly seek out ways to balance resource stewardship with achieving their sustainability goals, the program can offer companies a solution that addresses their full suite of needs. 

Beyond just carbon, the Family Forest Carbon Program provides a range of co-benefits that address vital issues including biodiversity, wildlife habitat, reduced wildfire risk and ecosystem resilience.
Just as important is the significant contribution the program can make in supporting forests to address climate change. By managing just 20 percent of family forest acres in the U.S. with practices that optimize carbon sequestration by 2030, about 2 gigatons of carbon emissions could be sequestered through the end of the century. That’s equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from more than 419 million passenger vehicles driven for one year, nearly twice as many vehicles as are in the U.S.

In developing the Family Forest Carbon Program, AFF and TNC have focused on delivering rigor, quality and transparency. Distinct within carbon markets, the Family Forest Carbon Program is creating a new science-based methodology to verify carbon, working with Verra, the non-profit organization that oversees the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) to review and validate this new approach is robust and credible. 

The methodology is built to accommodate the constraints of small land holdings but also could strengthen global approaches to carbon measurement in the future. Monitoring of carbon is calculated based on targeted measurement of forest stock changes due to the forest management practice a landowner implements, rather than traditional forest carbon inventories. This approach provides applicability to a wide range of forest management practices, allowing the program to scale across forest types. 

Carbon markets will continue to grow and expand, making it all the more important to develop programs that deliver reliable value and make real progress on making our natural systems more resilient. The Family Forest Carbon Program is a path to sequestering carbon, enhancing rural livelihoods and meeting stakeholder expectations, all while providing the rigorous evidence-based mechanics needed. It is creating the type of innovation growing carbon markets need to succeed. 

To learn more about how your company can get involved, visit the AFF’s Family Forest Carbon Program webpage.

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