What the Heck is Forest Carbon?

Picture this: gnarled branches dripping with moss, a collage of trees that seem to stretch into infinity. I tip my head back, taking in the forest’s sheer enormity and scale. Bringing a small yellow and black box up to one eye to peer through, I press a button on the side of the tool that shoots a laser out into the canopy. 

I’m not a Jedi in an episode of Star Wars - I’m using a laser-based tool to measure the height of the tree. It’s a standard forestry tool called a hypsometer or laser range finder. I’ve already recorded the tree’s diameter from wrapping a specialized measuring tape around its girth—the tree is many times wider than I can wrap my arms around. I’m here to collect data that can tell us about this forest’s ability to mitigate climate change. In this forest, landowner revenue is generated by keeping trees on the land, instead of harvesting it all for timber. A growing number of forest landowners have found this focal shift to be an appealing way of generating a significant amount of alternative revenue, supplanting the need for primary income from timber production. 

Together, a tree’s height, diameter, and species lay the foundation for estimating forest carbon sequestration. What the heck is forest carbon? ‘Forest carbon’ is a fairly recent addition to mainstream American vernacular, but it’s a scientific term firmly rooted in ecology. If you blow the dust off your junior high science textbook, you’ll have inhaled oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide, among other gases. Crack open the book and you’ll read that trees are our functional opposite: they “breathe in” carbon dioxide gas and “breathe out” oxygen. Trees then convert that carbon dioxide – in combination with sunlight, water, and soil nutrients – into more trees, or biomass, which is also known as forest carbon. So when we say ‘forest carbon sequestration’, we are referring to the carbon dioxide a tree (and by extension, the forest) naturally pulls out of the atmosphere and converts into wood. The bigger the trees, or the greater the number of trees on a landscape, the more carbon dioxide is taken out of the air.

The forest’s carbon sequestration process is beneficial because our atmosphere has tons of excess carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and releasing too much of it into our atmosphere is accelerating climate change. Climate change, as we know, is leading to such catastrophic effects as catastrophic wildfires, massive flooding, prolonged drought and food scarcity, and ecosystem shifts, such as ocean dead zones (as well as a suite of other fun stuff that hits your heart, health, and wallet). The more carbon dioxide we can take out of the atmosphere (and, of course, the more we can reduce how much is released in the first place), the better our chances will be at combating the worst effects of climate change. 

Along with the multitude of other co-benefits forests provide, trees play a crucial role in the fight against climate change. Think of trees as solar-powered carbon capture machines. While Silicon Valley and university researchers are in labs tinkering away on man-made solutions, we also need to recognize and honor the readily-available natural climate solution right in front of us.

A Primer on Forest Carbon Offsets 

Landowners large and small can get paid for the forest carbon sequestration their land provides. A strong financial market focused on socio-economic solutions to climate change has emerged from agencies and organizations acknowledging the importance of forest carbon. In the United States, there are two main branches (tree pun intended) of these forest carbon offset credit markets: the California Compliance market, and the voluntary market. 

The compliance market is driven by policy that limits the amount of greenhouse gas emissions various industries are allowed to produce. Meanwhile, the voluntary market is driven by personal accountability and social responsibility; companies voluntarily decide to purchase credits to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, with no agency or law requiring them to do so. The voluntary market is experiencing a lot of recent momentum with big companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and organizations in other sectors publicly pledging to carbon neutrality. The monetary value of offset credits generated from forest carbon sequestration is tied to market demand rather than a fixed amount, which allows offset credits to maintain relevant value through time. Both markets have a high demand for forest carbon offset credits currently, and are predicted to continue to be high demand as the nation (and world) ramps up climate change mitigation efforts. This means that for every unit of forest carbon a landowner has on their property, the more money that forest carbon is worth because so many organizations want/need to purchase the offset credit derived from it.

A logical next question: how can you, or a landowner you know, generate revenue for your property’s forest carbon sequestration ability? To receive revenue from the sale of carbon credits, landowners would need to enroll in a formal forest carbon offset project that would adhere to the regulations of an established ‘Improved Forest Management’ protocol. These protocols require the landowner to commit to 40 – 100+ years of forest carbon sequestration, with systematic monitoring and reporting to ensure requirements are being met. The protocols are complex because they aim to generate real revenue and real climate benefits directly derived from measurable, defensible methods. The protocols’ methods draw inspiration from traditional forestry and silviculture, and merge these standards with an ecological mindset and climate-forward vision. 

Forest carbon offset projects appeal to a wide variety of landowners, from small family forest owners and land trusts, to universities, to tribal nations, even state forests and commercial timber operators (TIMOs and REITs). Here a few representative forest carbon projects SIG Carbon has helped landowners develop in the compliance and voluntary markets: 

  • Tribe: A Native American tribe in Arizona enrolled two forest carbon projects - ~122,000 acres and ~89,000 acres - into the market. Revenue was used to improve biodiversity by providing a healthier habitat for wildlife, including elk, Mexican Spotted Owl, loach minnow and Apache trout, among others. Additionally, it helped protect a critical watershed for the state of Arizona. The tribe is also able to reinvest in the community and integrate carbon management into their long-term tribal planning.
Working with the White Mountain Apache Tribe
  • University: In Montana’s montane yellow pine forests, a state university enrolled ~20,000 acres of their experimental forest into a carbon project. The project will enable forestry students to come to this outdoor classroom to witness how forest carbon can co-exist with other land management research interests. 
  • Land Owners: In the rolling hills of Vermont, 10 small landowners aggregated their 12 non-contiguous properties together into the nation’s first aggregated carbon project. Typically blocked from entering the market, small landowners can now aggregate their properties. In this project, parcels ranged in size from 250 acres to 2,000 acres. Together, they conserved ~8,600 acres of prime broadleaf forest in a region feeling pressure from development. 

There are also a range of allowable applied land management styles within a forest carbon offset project. In fact, the forest carbon offset protocols themselves allow commercial harvest to some degree. The protocols prioritize net forest growth over extraction, along with biodiversity and habitat feature criteria, aiming to reform traditional forestry, rather than eliminate it completely. Standard forest management such as wildfire fuels reductions and disease control are also permitted in a forest carbon offset project, recognizing that removals can mitigate risks to the remaining trees. 

Specialized forest carbon consultants exist, and can help you make sense of your opportunities in the carbon offset market. Project developers, such as SIG Carbon, will help you assess if a forest carbon offset project is financially viable for your land. We can guide you through the steps to develop your project, ensure your project maintains compliance with the selected market’s program, and help you sell your offset credits for real money. To learn more about the viability of your land for enrollment in a carbon project – and for a free feasibility assessment – contact Erin Alvey, Mendocino Coast resident and Research Scientist at SIG Carbon, at ealvey@sig-gis.com.

INTEREsted in Learning more?

Want to know if a carbon project is possible in your forest? Get in touch.
If you can provide us with the boundaries of your property plus a tree inventory,
we'll assess your land and tell you everything you need to know.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
See our list of Voluntary Market Carbon Disclosures here