At its heart, the concept of forest carbon credits aims for the good. Carbon credits provide a way for companies to quantify their carbon output and responsibly manage it. They’re often positioned as ethical, forward-thinking, and important to the future of sustainability.
Yet according to ResourceWise President and CEO Pete Stewart’s 2023 predictions, we can likely expect the beginning of the end for these credits this year. Many critics often question the legitimacy of carbon credits altogether, wondering if companies merely use them as a veneer to conceal their ongoing pollution.
What’s the real story behind forest carbon credits? And what can we do to better account for carbon if credits are not fitting the bill?
The ‘Good Idea’ of Forest Carbon Credits
There are differing levels of carbon offsets, credits, and related topics. Providing forest carbon credits relies on a specific methodology to work.
Picture a landowner who has significant forested land on their property. They're potentially considering cutting the forest down for some purpose like a housing development or an agricultural conversion.
Instead of cutting the forest down, the government or another broker comes along. They offer to pay the landowner a certain amount to keep the forest standing. This is how the land becomes designated as a forest carbon credit area.
Carbon emitting companies can now buy these credits from the forest landowner. Rather than reducing their actual emissions, they buy credits from this conserved forest land.
The idea is that buying credits enables companies to continue their operations while still actively investing in offsetting the pollution they create. Investing in this process also usually comes with a commitment to improving operations and reducing carbon output over time.
Calling Forest Carbon Credits into Question
With this explanation in mind, why would anyone think of these credits as a bad thing? After all, aiming toward sustainability with a practical policy ought to help meet carbon goals.
The philosophical aim of forest carbon credits is certainly an admirable one. And in many cases, it operates by design in allowing companies to invest in the future while scaling to meet carbon goals.
The problem arises, mostly, in relation to companies with no intentions of actively reducing their carbon footprint. Instead, the push seems to come toward hitting those ‘net zero’ targets relative to carbon emissions.
Practically all companies will proudly announce their corporate aim toward reaching net zero. However, if companies are just pushing their on-paper objectives without making the necessary logistical shifts, what’s really changing?
The common term for this is ‘greenwashing’ – a kind of do-nothing platitude where companies make no actual adjustments to reduce their carbon footprint.
Greenwashing and Real Carbon Mitigation: Where Do Credits Stand?
The problem of greenwashing, and carbon credits in general, is directly where ResourceWise President and CEO Pete Stewart focuses his critique. According to his predictions:
1. Carbon credits – of any type – only provide justification to pollute more.
Why not simply keep the pollution machines churning if a company can easily buy their way out via carbon credits? And why not obscure exactly how forest carbon credits are measured to appear green and ethical while failing to change anything to support sustainability?
This connects to the greenwashing indictment many carbon credit issuers have faced, and they have rightfully come under a higher level of scrutiny. Unfortunately, these criticisms continue to compound across many of the largest carbon credit companies and issuers.
For instance, an investigation from The Guardian showed that up to 90% of the credits offered by one of the leaders in setting carbon standards were simply ‘phantom credits.’ They were not real in any tangible way and were not helping to offset carbon pollution beyond the numbers in a spreadsheet.
If polluters now have a way to look sustainable and preserve their corporate image without changing, they’re probably not going to change.
2. Carbon is actually stored longer in finished products like lumber and cross-laminated timber and not in the stump.
Understanding how carbon offsets work goes beyond the measurement of trees in a forest. Yet forest carbon credits set their sights solely on those forests and their stumps – ignoring the wood itself after it leaves the forest. Therefore, it neglects accurate carbon counting in these next phases of trees.
Additionally, the designated forests are still sold to developers to be used or harvested based on the landowner’s wishes. In many cases, this could mean ongoing harvests of this lumber every 10-20 years depending on the type of wood.
Carbon credits don’t account for the stored carbon in all this harvested timber over the years. At best, then, carbon credits serve as a short-term solution with wildly ambiguous measurements of how carbon is actually conserved.
As Stewart described it, “The carbon is stored longer in the finished product, especially lumber and cross-laminated timber. And it is certainly simpler to measure these amounts. Delaying harvests and getting paid for the carbon stored on the stump works until the tree dies. But this raises an obvious question: then what?”
Making Changes to Better Address the Problem
To get past these challenges, the only achievable path forward with forest carbon credits is to get real and get honest about them. Carbon credits as they stand now can’t move us toward meeting any of our collective carbon goals. We need to readjust our expectations in several different ways:
- Incorporate more accurate measurements for carbon. This includes better identification about how carbon is stored in wood beyond the forests.
- Improve measurements and reporting mechanisms. Until we have some sort of standardized system with reliable metrics, misconduct and ambiguity will worsen.
We will likely see continued reports about ambiguities and phantom numbers when it comes to forest carbon credits. As credibility continues to diminish, Pete Stewart’s words will only become more poignant.
Where will the concept of credits inevitably go? Let’s hope it will redirect toward a more accurate method for reducing carbon emissions across the board.