Nature: the one partner every company should work with

One of the most powerful tools in the fight against climate change is a "secret technology" that has surrounded us for the past 3.5 billion years.

So says Peter Ellis, forest carbon scientist for The Nature Conservancy (TNC). He is, of course, talking about photosynthesis, the process that pulls carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and turns it into plant matter. This concept is well-known to anyone who has been following the climate story. What is less well-known is that the contribution of forests and other natural systems can be significantly enhanced through the use of smarter management practices. These practices are part of a portfolio of what TNC calls "natural climate solutions," which involve the protection, management and restoration of various critical ecosystems — forests, grasslands, wetlands and croplands.

Exciting new technologies such as renewable power generation systems, electric cars and equipment that enables direct air capture of carbon dioxide tend to steal the spotlight when it comes to talking about tools for addressing and reversing climate change. But forests and other natural systems will also play a crucial role. "It's a very large component of what we need to do to stay below two degrees of warming," Ellis said.

Ellis was one of several speakers discussing "The Forgotten Solution" during a GreenBiz 19 session, along with Sophie Beckham, senior manager of natural capital stewardship for International Paper, and Andrew Green, senior manager and head of the environmental sustainability office for Capital One. What do a banker, a logger and a conservation scientist have in common? If they were walking into a bar, it would be the opening for a joke, right? But this is serious business.

International Paper is a leading producer of paper, cardboard and pulp for disposable diapers. It is, in fact, the largest forest paper and packaging company in the world. International Paper used to be the largest private forest landowner in the United States, but it divested most of those holdings and simply buys fiber from state-owned or leased lands. The heart of the company’s sustainability strategy, according to Beckham, is its commitment to sustaining forests. Accordingly, last April, International Paper announced a major partnership with TNC centered on improving and advancing sustainable logging practices.

Capital One is a financial services organization with a primary business centered on credit cards. Its main marketing approach is direct mailing, which means the company uses a tremendous amount of paper — 150 million pounds per year of card stock in the United States alone. That's why a primary pillar of Capital One’s sustainability strategy is its paper policy, which started in 2009. The company began with a commitment to using Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper. The current target includes migrating to a supply consisting of 95 percent FSC-certified pulp for virgin stock while also including 30 percent post-consumer waste.

Both International Paper and Capital One view better forest management as a key component of their strategies to reduce their environmental impact, and both are working with TNC to help achieve their sustainability goals.

According to a TNC report, written by Ellis and published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, we need 30 gigatons per year of carbon mitigation if we are to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Natural climate solutions can potentially provide 11 gigatons. A good chunk of this, about 11 percent, can be achieved by operationalizing better forest management practices, according to TNC. Of the eight natural climate solution pathways spelled out by the nonprofit, managing timberlands is No. 4, after restoring forests, protecting forests and managing croplands, respectively. Altogether, these eight pathways potentially can provide more than a third of the needed mitigation, according to TNC.

Known as reduced impact logging for climate change (RIL-C), these practices were developed by 17 scientists working in seven countries over a 10-year period and were specifically designed to reduce carbon emissions. According to a recent paper, using these methods can reduce the emissions associated with logging  — as measured by their carbon impact factor (CIF) — by as much as 44 percent with no impact on production volumes. Clearly, this represents an opportunity for a win-win.

Working Woodlands is a program under which TNC partners with private landowners, who work to set aside certain areas with conservation easements for perpetuity, to get the land FSC-certified and get enrolled in the carbon markets. 

Capital One uses one such project in Tennessee, between Nashville and Knoxville, consisting of around 3,000 acres. The site achieved FSC certification in 2017. The first harvest in 2018 qualified for carbon credits. The wood was purchased by International Paper, while Capital One was able to purchase the carbon credits as part of its carbon reduction program.

Through the Working Woodlands program alone, TNC expects to sequester 7.1 million tons of CO2 through 2030, while protecting clean water for 300,000 people and providing up to $400 per acre in carbon offsets — all while ensuring long-term forest productivity and increasing long-term yields by 10 to 20 percent.

This sort of initiative focuses on a certain type of logging called selective logging, where individual trees are cut down based on their type, size, and condition as determined by market demand. This is quite different from clear-cutting forests. "These are forests that still look like forests after the trees come out," Ellis said.

While this method is preferable to clear-cutting, from an environmental standpoint, selective logging is still responsible for 6 percent of all tropical carbon emissions. The use of RIL-C methods could cut that nearly in half, according to TNC.

What is involved in RIL-C logging? According to Ellis, the practice involves little more than making some simple changes to the way that timber is extracted. Right now, for every ton of wood removed from the forest, an average of six tons are damaged in the process.

Some improvements called for under RIL-C methods include using smaller equipment such as winches rather than bulldozers to move the logs. This, in turn, allows for narrower roads to be built.

Another change involves what’s cut down in the first place. Traditionally, some 30 percent of trees cut down are left behind when they are found to be hollow or otherwise damaged. More careful inspection of trees before they are cut could reduce this number, and tools and technologies are available to do this.

The net result of using logging practices of this nature could be a reduction of 366 billion metric tons of CO2 annually, according to a TNC report titled "Smarter Logging Can Save Trees." For some small countries that log heavily, switching to these techniques could represent half or more of their Paris climate commitment.

One interesting point made during the GreenBiz 19 session is that much of the work that TNC is doing with the support of International Paper takes place in tropical countries, such as Indonesia, despite that International Paper does not source any of its wood from there.

There are two reasons for this, according to Beckham. First, because she personally spent time in that region as an undergraduate and sees the potential for positive impact. Second, the company's major focus on Sustainable Development Goal 15 (Life on Land) has targeted those areas as particularly vulnerable to irresponsible forest practices.