Last week’s IPCC report on Mitigation of Climate Change includes two stark admissions– that in order to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) must peak by 2025, and that projected national contributions will be insufficient to get us there. It goes on to say that new mitigation strategies, as well as new actors, will be necessary to close the so-called “emissions and implementation gap.” It’s an appeal to policymakers and standards bodies alike to remove barriers to offset innovation and to channel resources to mitigation efforts that can deliver large-scale immediate impact. The forest carbon industry should heed this call as well.
Forest carbon offsets have long been viewed as critical for global GHG mitigation, yet questions over how to assess their climate impact have prevented broad implementation. These criticisms, while often legitimate, have too often forced offset providers into a defensive posture, adopting stringent program requirements and long contract terms (up to 100 years) to avoid questions about permanence. Ironically, it is this conservative stance that has the IPCC citing the “untapped potential” of forest carbon offsets in April 2022. Despite decades of development, the forestry sector has yet to rise to the occasion and has instead opted for duration over action.
Our carbon offset program can help achieve the “accelerated mitigation” called for in the report. By lowering the cost of entry, annual harvest deferral offsets will allow a greater diversity of forest landowners to bring their carbon to market. As with all innovations, a new unfamiliar approach attracts new questions. Those familiar with legacy offsets may see short-term crediting as risky compared to traditional offset methodologies, even with their well-known issues. Unlike a decade ago, the tools and technologies now exist to address these new questions directly and to quantify the risks involved. Embracing new approaches, backed by scientific rigor and verification, will enable a landscape-level shift in harvesting practices, with demonstrable climate impact.
At NCX, we have a favorite phrase: “learning in public.” To us, this means taking decisive action, and tackling hard questions, even under public scrutiny. If we as a climate mitigation community are to hear the IPCC’s call for action, we will all need to adopt a learning mindset, with a bias toward action. Two decades ago catastrophic climate change felt a long way off, and it seemed reasonable to trade immediate impact for the perception of long term certainty. The IPCC report makes clear that this is no longer the case, and without bold collective action the untapped potential of forest offsets will go unrealized for yet another decade.