This is the first in a series of blog posts on forest carbon economics. These bite-sized posts are adapted from SilviaTerra’s white paper “Forests and Carbon: A Guide for Buyers and Policymakers.”
Over the next few decades, hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent fighting climate change with the express goal of reducing future costs to society. A significant portion of that money will be directed to “natural climate solutions” in general and forest-based carbon strategies in particular. How can we spend that money most effectively?
Selecting the most effective forest carbon strategies requires understanding the economics of forest landowners, and further, how incentives can change landowner behavior. Understanding traditional forest management in general - and timber economics in particular - is essential for evaluating forest carbon strategies. Yet this is no simple task.
Forest management resembles the ancient board game of Go. The set of possible moves is relatively small and those moves are relatively simple, but the arrangement of those moves in space and time creates a very complex set of outcomes. And unlike a Go board, which doesn’t change if you walk away, forests continue to grow and change constantly.
Each individual acre of forest is unique and changes naturally over time. Accounting for future uncertainty - ecological, economic, and political - is especially challenging when thinking about the decades- or centuries-long lifespans of trees.
Furthermore, it’s surprisingly complicated to draw a clear line between the actions taken on a single acre and the effect on the overall landscape. There are millions of individual forest owners with a complex set of economic, ecological, and personal motivations. The actions taken by one owner on a single acre can change the ecological and economic dynamics on nearby acres owned by others.
Faced with an immense amount of complexity, how can we evaluate strategies that may increase the total landscape forest carbon on the planet? SilviaTerra’s RISE framework suggests four key questions that must be asked of any forest carbon strategy:
Does the strategy induce a real change in landowner behavior and result in more total landscape forest carbon?
Does the strategy create near-term impact or is it in the distant future?
How many billion tons of carbon can this strategy remove from the atmosphere this decade?
What is the price per ton of carbon shifted from the atmosphere to the forest?
Note that the RISE mnemonic lists the criteria in rough order of importance. If a strategy’s impact isn’t Real, there is no point in evaluating its Efficiency!
In following posts, we’ll elaborate on the RISE framework and assess how various forest carbon strategies perform against its criteria.