It’s Time to Invest in Negative Carbon

Onion Peak is a 5,055 acre parcel managed by Ecotrust Forest Management on the Oregon Coast.

By Logan Yonavjak

With wildfires raging in Northern California during this year’s SOCAP conference, the need to invest in more resilient land management practices is critical. The question is: How do we manage our land in a way that can not only buffer events like this in the future, but also help us turn the tide on global warming?

A conference panel entitled, “Forget Net Zero: It’s Time to Invest in Negative Carbon,” highlighted several solutions – with representatives from a real assets investment company, a cattle ranch, and a community-development bank.

While the urgency of global warming demands that we rapidly reduce emissions and transition to a clean energy economy, we now know that we will not effectively turn the tide if we also don’t employ strategies that result in negative emissions – strategies that actually sequester carbon for a significant length of time.

In a recent paper in Nature, scientists agreed that large amounts of carbon may need to be removed from the atmosphere (aka “negative emissions”) in order to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. In other words, slowing emissions is not enough.

But how can investing in land possibly get us there?

Citing recent research in Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown, if we transform our forest and farm systems globally through regenerative agriculture and managed grazing practices, as well as restore temperate forests, we can sequester over 62 Gigatons (or 562 billion metric tons of CO2e) of carbon by 2050 – which is equivalent to around 6 percent of what is necessary for the atmospheric reduction needed to maintain global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius.

Forests of the West, as defined by the U.S. Forest Service as 6 western states (WA, CA, ID, OR, NV, and UT) store over 30 billion metric tons of CO2e, and contribute to reducing ~14 percent of the country’s emissions – they are effectively the single largest source of negative emissions in the country.

Ecotrust Forest Management (EFM) is already taking steps to achieve negative emissions with forests in the western U.S. EFM is a B Corp certified, real asset investment company that creates compelling investment opportunities at the intersection of working landscapes, conservation, and rural economic development in the western U.S.

Since 2004, EFM has transitioned over 75,000 acres of forestland via FSC-certified, climate-smart forestry across Oregon, California and Washington. These forests store 5 million metric tons of CO2e. While currently involving only a small fraction of the total capacity of western U.S. forests, their model can be replicated to create other opportunities for net-zero climate investing in land.

“Instead of investing in expensive and often risky carbon storage technologies we can, and must rely on soil, forests, coastal wetlands and green buildings to sequester carbon,” says Bettina von Hagen, Founder & CEO of EFM.

EFM and others argue that we can transform the climate crisis into an incredible area of opportunity for the western U.S., and other regions that employ this strategy. In the west, there are natural systems that are among the most productive in the world from a carbon perspective, giving the region a natural competitive advantage.

But it’s not just about carbon. Investing in real assets, diversifying revenue from the land-base and re-tooling associated processing infrastructure also gives us an opportunity to rebuild communities with social equity in mind. People not traditionally part of the climate change conversation, including foresters, fisherman, farmers, ranchers, and bankers can play a role in this new economic paradigm.

Last but not least, investing using these strategies helps to shift the power base and restore agency to many disempowered communities, which can empower those who are best equipped to care for the land.

So, what needs to be done?

EFM argues that we are grossly underutilizing the capacity of western forests to store carbon. In Oregon, for instance, trees are harvested every 35-40 years, while they can continue to grow at very high rates well into 100 years.

“Oregon could become a negative emissions state through forest policy and monetary incentives to forestland owners to increase rotation ages and reduce harvest intensities,” says Amrita Vatsal, Managing Director at EFM. “This needs to be done in parallel with investments that support job creation via restoration thinning, habitat creation, fuels treatments, processing infrastructure for small-diameter wood, innovations in tall-wood buildings that create new uses for wood and enterprise creation in rural communities.”

The public land base is an important piece of the puzzle as well. The challenges here are different – with overly dense stands, tree mortality, and wildfires contributing to significant carbon losses. Creating new markets for small-diameter logs that are a product of thinning, and retooling mills to accept these logs will be necessary to sustain wood-flow and support regional wood-based economies.

Together, we can invest in the future health of our public and private lands to build a more climate resilient future.

Image credit: Ecotrust Forest Management (EFM)

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