What’s Better Than Planting Trees? Saving Forests

In our quest to mitigate climate change, nature has the highly effective carbon solution we need: forests. Now, it’s up to us all to protect them.
Posted on
January 18, 2021
What’s Better Than Planting Trees? Saving Forests

Photo from Unsplash

Photo from Unsplash

If we were to take a vast swath of forest that’s been logged and neglected for decades and put it in the hands of local people committed to restoring and conserving it, how much change could we see?

Kootznoowoo, an Alaska Native Village Corporation for the community of Angoon, is about to find out. 

South of Juneau on the Alaska Panhandle, Kootznoowoo is set on island landscapes that include forests, wetlands and beaches, home to migrating birds, waterfowl, deer and bears. (Kootznoowoo, the majority of whose shareholders are Tlingit Indian, means “Fortress of the Bears” in Tlingit.)

But the woods, once resplendent with western hemlock, Sitka spruce, cedar and other trees, have lost some of their original lushness. Like most surrounding communities, Kootznoowoo’s economy has relied heavily on logging, which took place throughout the ’80s and ’90s.

That logging, along with landslides and windthrow (the uprooting of trees due to heavy winds) impacted a significant portion of the surrounding Tongass National Forest. Indigenous communities in Alaska operate as incorporated villages, which own and manage the land for Alaska Native shareholders.

And for a long time there were very few financial resources available to rehabilitate the health of these trees.

Trees being logged and removed resulting in deforestation

But in recent years, opportunity came calling: In 2015, the carbon offsets market created by California’s cap-and-trade program opened to Alaska, which has since become the program’s largest source of forestry carbon offsets.

As one of the state’s carbon offset projects, the Kootznoowoo Improved Forest Management Project, started in 2018, is giving the local community the financial support it needs to preserve more than 20,000 acres of diverse ecosystems.

Crucially, for our collective fight against climate change, it protects significant carbon sinks, with old-growth forest making up nearly 40 percent of the project area. 

How forests store carbon

Much fanfare has been made about how planting trees fights climate change, spurring pledges by government and environmental agencies to plant a trillion trees.

After all, trees are ecological marvels capable of pulling carbon from the atmosphere and locking it away, so it stands to reason that the more we have, the better. 

Old-growth forest in the winter

It’s undeniable that tree-planting is valuable, but what’s even better is protecting the old-growth forests we already have. New trees absorb carbon at faster rates as they grow, but it’s the mature ones—and the complex forest ecosystems they’re a part of—that have the greater capacity to sequester greenhouse gas emissions.

And a big part of this is the magic of photosynthesis. 

Trees stretch their branches and leaves out to the sky and their roots into the soil. They harness the energy of the sun and absorb CO2 from the air and H2O (aka water) from the air and ground. That carbon and hydrogen, and some of the oxygen, are turned into glucose for fuel, while excess oxygen is released into the air. As trees get older and larger, so does their capacity to absorb and stow carbon.

A University of Hamburg study of trees ranging from 83 to 255 years old found that up to 50 percent of the total carbon stored in a tree’s lifetime was absorbed within the last quarter of its life. 

How does deforestation affect climate change?

When an old-growth forest like Kootznoowoo’s is cut down, we don’t just lose opportunities for carbon sequestration.

Deforestation also releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and it’s happening at a much bigger scale than ever before—all over the world, among all our forest ecosystems. And then there’s that vicious circle that comes with the climate crisis, which is contributing to the death of old-growth trees through higher incidences of forest fires, droughts, floods and other related natural disasters.

As an example, The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) estimates that 27 percent of the Amazon biome could be without trees by 2030 , and the excess carbon would have dire consequences for the world.

A newly planted tree from a carbon offset program being watered

Does planting trees help deforestation?

Planting trees is a good thing in the right conditions, but the challenge (and it’s a big one) is in keeping up with the rate of deforestation.

For instance, a recent study published in Global Change Biology found that secondary forests (with trees younger than 32 years) in the Brazilian Amazon have offset less than 10 percent of the emissions caused by the loss of old-growth forest. 

So, what are our solutions? 

Forest restoration and conservation

We need to create new forest cover to capture as much carbon as possible, which means planting more trees. But the bigger opportunity is in simple stewardship: conserving, restoring and improving the forests, grasslands and other natural and ancient biomes that already exist. 

Researchers say natural climate solutions, like conservation and restoration, could provide more than one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation the world needs by 2030 to meet the Paris Agreement’s target: making sure the planet doesn’t get 3.6°F warmer than pre-industrial levels. 

How do conservation-based carbon offset projects help? 

This is where improved forest management projects like Kootznoowoo’s come in.

Under cap-and-trade systems like California’s, large polluters can offset a portion of the greenhouse gases they emit by buying carbon credits. (Read more about cap-and-trade in our guide to carbon offset programs.)

Plus, anyone can purchase carbon offsets to balance out their own GHG emissions. The funding goes to projects that remove or reduce emissions, including natural solutions that protect Alaska’s expanse of forests, wetlands and grasslands. 

Old-growth forest covered in green moss

The Kootznoowoo Project

Essentially, the village of Kootznoowoo is financially empowered by not logging their forests and by maintaining healthy forest growth, which benefits their immediate community and us all. By 2038, according to estimates, the Kootznoowoo project will have removed 40,903 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—that’s enough to cover the energy use of almost 5 billion homes for a year.

The Great Bear Forest Carbon Project

Carbon offset projects like this that combat deforestation and climate change can be found around the world. The Great Bear Forest Carbon Project, for instance, generates credits covering up to one million tons of GHG emissions per year to preserve the sprawling temperate rainforest along the west coast of British Columbia, Canada.

The Rimba Raya Project

Rimba Raya, as another example, uses carbon offsets to protect precious peatlands from becoming oil palm plantations in Indonesian Borneo.

The carbon offset market isn’t without challenges or complications. (Want the full explainer? We have your detailed guide to how carbon offsetting works.) But despite room for improvement in the system, the principle is clear: If we want to hit the guidelines in the Paris Agreement, we have to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and support initiatives that maximize carbon sequestration. 

How conservation-focused carbon offsetting supports the local community

Carbon offset projects don’t just reduce greenhouse gas emissions; they often help communities kickstart their local economy to become self-sustaining.

For Kootznoowoo, there’s little incentive to go back to deforestation. For one, what’s gone is gone: Even if they were to reopen their forests to commercial interests, many trees wouldn’t be ready to be logged again for decades to come. Moreover, thanks to carbon offsetting, forest conservation has a financial upside, providing resources for shareholders and for community goals, both short-term and long-term.  

Forest next to a lake and mountains

According to Melissa Kookesh, chair of the Kootznoowoo board of directors, the sale of carbon credits could propel their town into a future where their village is not just self-sufficient but thriving. “The reason we’re here is to be watchful stewards of our land,” says Kookesh, “and to do right by our shareholders and to provide opportunities where we can.” 

Right now, Kootznoowoo is undergoing major restoration work on the project lands and undoing some of the damage done from decades of logging. In the short term, they’ll be able to get their buildings spiffed up, establish a new airport in Angoon and develop a hydropower dam, moving residents off diesel power and onto 100 percent renewable energy. 

In the long term, the revenue generated by carbon offsetting could accelerate their plans to become a new ecotourism destination. Kookesh envisions opportunities for visitors to kayak, bear watch (from a safe distance), tour around old clan houses and longhouses, and learn about the history and culture of the Tlingit people. 

Forest acting as a carbon sink

From community centers and coffee shops to art galleries where Native artists can sell their pieces, all of these spaces would support local culture, provide local jobs and keep the community self-sustaining. And with the future promised by the sale of carbon offsets, generations to come will be able to see the forests thriving.

How you can support forest carbon offsets

Inspired to buy carbon offsets as a way to neutralize your personal GHG emissions while protecting old-growth forests?

There are tons of certified carbon offset companies around the world, and many major airlines will let travelers offset their flights at point-of-purchase. 

Person in a forest with rain

When browsing, look for certification through trustworthy organizations like Verra and Bluesource. Reputable carbon offset companies will have a third-party project developer verify the purchase and issue a serial number for each credit, which ensures the reductions aren’t being resold elsewhere. (If you haven’t read our guide to carbon offsetting yet, click and pull up a chair.)

Carbon offsets aren’t just a feel-good way to sustain small communities. They’re also part of a new economy that prioritizes the planet we live on. Think of it as reinvesting in nature’s depleted bank account.

The difference is, once that balance is healthy again, we’ll be sharing the benefits all over the world.

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Jessica Wei
Written By
Jessica Wei

Jessica Wei is a writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in the Guardian, GQ, and the Independent. She'll sneak an anchovy into any dish she's cooking.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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