Forest Managers Need a Comprehensive Climate-Change Strategy

The UN Climate Summit held in New York City on September 23rd of this year generated levels of press coverage on climate change not seen since the Copenhagen Summit (COP15) of 2009. The differences between the headlines generated by this year’s event and the one held five years ago can tell us a lot about the latest trends by governments, corporations, and the public to take action to prevent climate change.

The 2009 summit in Copenhagen was centered on creating a single binding international treaty signed by the world’s largest emitters to significantly reduce greenhouse gases. Unfortunately, when the Copenhagen Summit failed to deliver on its one promise, it was largely condemned by the media as a failure.[1]

The leaders of the 2014 Climate Summit learned their lessons and focused on a variety of paths to achieve meaningful change. This approach was broader and delivered a series of formal commitments by the private sector, international NGOs, and governments to tackle the problem of climate change. It was not dominated by official delegates hammering out dense language for an international treaty. While the commitments made in 2014 were not binding, they represented a formal commitment by a broad swath of partners on a range of actions and were widely seen as a success.[2]

Some of the most important commitments included the following:

  • Palm oil producers committed to a goal of zero net deforestation by 2020
  • Institutional investors committed to disclose the carbon impacts of over $500 million in investments
  • The launch of the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture
  • The New York Declaration on Forests established targets and principles for sustainable forest management that would benefit the climate and was endorsed by 34 major corporations, 45 international NGOs and 35 national and sub-national governments including the United States
  • The role of forests in this new series of actions was critical. All forest managers should take note of the key elements of corporate commitments included within the New York Declaration on Forests. Corporations that signed the declaration agreed to:
  • At least halve the rate of loss of natural forests globally by 2020 and strive to end natural forest loss by 2030.
  • Support and help meet the private-sector goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, paper and beef products by no later than 2020, recognizing that many companies have even more ambitious targets.
  • Significantly reduce deforestation derived from other economic sectors by 2020.
  • Support alternatives to deforestation driven by basic needs (such as subsistence farming and reliance on fuel wood for energy) in ways that alleviate poverty and promote sustainable and equitable development.
  • Restore 150 million hectares of degraded landscapes and forestlands by 2020 and significantly increase the rate of global restoration thereafter, which would restore at least an additional 200 million hectares by 2030.[3]

While many of these commitments may more directly impact tropical forests in developing countries, forest managers in the United States should not ignore the larger trends they represent. It is clear today, that climate change is a major concern for businesses, insurers[4], and the public. Surveys now show that 2/3 of the US population is convinced that global climate change is a serious threat.[5] This public awareness will drive actions by major corporations who must respond to shareholders and NGOs who have a strong base of support to prevent major changes to the earth’s climate. People want to know what impacts their purchases are having on the environment. And, perhaps most importantly, corporations realize that removing greenhouse gas emissions from operations not only makes sense from an environmental perspective, it makes good business sense.[6]

Given the shift over the last five years from global treaties to a more multi-faceted demand for climate action, natural resource managers will have to develop a broader response than just fulfilling regulatory obligations that could accompany an international treaty or national regulations such as the Waxman Markey Bill. It will be increasingly important for forest managers to develop a comprehensive strategy to address climate change throughout their operations.

A strategic climate strategy should focus on three major areas: 1) adaptation, 2) mitigation, and 3) reporting. For each of these core areas, a forest manager should begin to ask a series of questions to guide action plan that will accompany standard forest planning efforts.

1) Adaptation

Forest managers rely on functioning ecosystems to develop the products they sell. Any shift to ecological function, whether through changes in growing conditions, insect outbreaks, and natural disturbances influence the management decisions that foresters make on a daily basis. As climate changes begin to influence these decisions, managers will have to consider how their assumptions on precipitation levels, fire return intervals, temperature regimes, and disturbance patterns will influence planting cycles, management operations, and appraised value of timberlands.

Strategic Questions

Does your organization use growth and yield modeling and financial analysis that assumes past productivity of sites will remain constant? Are you using planting regimes that do not take into account shifts in species mix over time? What are the expected changes in precipitation for your forest? How will that shift fire return intervals? Will concern over other resources, such as water, begin to compete with timber as a possible revenue source?

2) Mitigation

Sustainable forest management is a relatively simple activity that can remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This will mean that public and corporate demand for the management of forests for their climate benefits should increase in the near term, especially when compared to the alternative of expensive carbon capture and storage. In fact, we have already witnessed the forest carbon offset market in California provide significant revenue for participating US forest owners.

Within the framework of the California Market, forest carbon projects can be developed following an established protocol.[7] Landowners that want to participate are required to measure the carbon pools in their forests that may change over time and calculate the differences in carbon levels that would result from planned future management under the project and business as usual management for the region.

Unlike many other carbon offset protocols, the California Air Resources Board US Forest Protocol determines the amount of carbon offset credits based on a performance standard. This standard defines the number of credits delivered by a forest project by comparing the carbon stocks of the project site with a baseline based on the regional average established through USFS FIA data and standard forest management practices for that section of the US. The structure of these protocols can mean additional revenue for well-stocked lands that may not be currently considered for timber harvest.

Strategic Questions

Does your organization own lands that have lands that deliver only marginal returns from a timber perspective? Are these lands more financially viable under a carbon offset program? Are you maximizing revenue potential from lands that are in reserves or conservation protection? How diverse is your income stream from the land you own and manage? Would your operation benefit from revenue that is not tied exclusively to current timber prices?

3) Reporting

The New York Declaration on Forests is a good example of how companies will strive to fulfill consumer demand for products that do not cause significant greenhouse gas emissions. Shareholders are beginning to pay closer attention to their companies’ climate strategy and supply chain partners and will shape corporate sourcing decisions. Organizations that develop a reporting standard that considers these demands from the corporate world will have a strategic advantage in today’s market.

Strategic Questions

Does your organization currently quantify the climate impacts of operations? How difficult will it be to demonstrate a commitment to standards for responsible management? What are your plans to establish management standards that will increase carbon sequestration? Does your forest management plan include sections on climate change adaptation and mitigation?

For many forest managers a comprehensive review of the state of climate change policy and current operations could lay the foundation for a climate strategy that will put your organizations ahead of competitors. If a forest management organization takes steps today to establish a comprehensive climate strategy, they will find themselves the first organization business leaders will call when they want to ensure they can trace the climate impacts throughout their overall supply chain. And while it may be difficult to calculate a price premium for tracking climate impacts, establishing yourself as a leader in this area will ensure that you remain a sourcing partner for all businesses, especially those that make an added commitment to respond to the public demand for protecting the earth’s fragile climate.

Read the article on The Forestry Source here.