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Carbon credits from forestry

The Kyoto Protocol allows countries to claim credit for carbon stored in new forests planted on or after 1 January 1990, after allowing for any deforestation that has taken place. These credits can be used to offset emissions that would otherwise be in excess of a country’s Kyoto target. In the future, credits might also be allowed for other types of land use change that result in net carbon storage, e.g. a change from arable land to pasture.

Forestry credits are sound policy for three reasons. Firstly, they encourage reforestation of land that has been unwisely deforested in the past. Globally, deforestation is a serious problem. Counting carbon released from deforestation as emissions should help to discourage deforestation, but in many areas we also need to encourage replanting of denuded land. It will take many years to replace what was lost, and much depends on what type of forest management is undertaken, but reforestation can potentially provide a range of environmental benefits besides carbon storage. Potential benefits include soil conservation, water quality improvement, restored habitats for wildlife, and a source of wood that can reduce harvesting pressure on natural forests worldwide.

Secondly, what matters from a climate stabilisation viewpoint is reducing the concentration of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Establishing permanent forests does indeed remove CO­2. Once a forest is harvested, of course, that carbon will eventually be released, soon if the wood is used to make paper, later if it is used as framing timber for houses. So the emissions resulting from harvest must be accounted for. But as long as harvest is balanced with regrowth, there will be continuing storage of carbon; and as long as the total forest estate is growing, there will be net growth in carbon storage.

The third advantage of forest credits is that by establishing forests, we are creating a long-term source of wood that can substitute for fossil fuel-intensive products such as steel, aluminium, cement, boiler fuels, and possibly also transport fuels. For example, by using wooden framing instead of steel framing in house construction, emission reductions can be achieved. Forest residues are becoming an important source of process heat in the pulp and paper industry, and they provide boiler fuel in several other industries. In the future, it is possible that the production of liquid transport fuels from woody biomass will become an important strategy for reducing the dependence of transport systems on fossil fuels.

The next phase of negotiations on the global climate convention will consider establishing credits for beneficial land use change, for example, favouring no-tillage agriculture. Such credits could also offer environmental side-benefits, especially in reduced soil loss and improved soil health. It is worth reflecting that the destabilisation of the global climate is not just a result of fossil fuel combustion; it is also a product of deforestation and of unhealthy patterns of land use. It follows that climate change policies should aim not just to reduce fossil fuel emissions, but also to encourage forest retention and reforestation, and to curb soil degradation and erosion.

Credits for forestry and other land use change are only part of the answer to climate change. Emissions from burning fossil fuels and, in New Zealand, from livestock must also be addressed. But afforestation provides one way of reducing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere; it provides a low cost bridge to a future less dependent on fossil fuels; and it provides a range of other environmental benefits in the meantime.

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