Carbon offsetting could preserve N.S. forests, but researchers raise concerns

A Maritime non-profit has a proposal to protect Nova Scotia’s forests, by ensuring that they’re more valuable left standing, but a researcher questions if it's a good tool to combat climate change.

Non-profit recruiting woodlot owners to sell rights to carbon in forests

Dale Prest, CFI’s ecosystem services specialist, said the company helps to offset carbon held up in the forest and prevents it from going into the climate. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

A Maritime organization wants to protect Nova Scotia's forests by ensuring they're more valuable left standing than harvested.

Dale Prest of Community Forests International and the Climate Forest Company wants to meet with woodlot owners in Nova Scotia to discuss how they can sell polluters the rights to the carbon stored in their forests.

Prest told CBC's Information Morning that forests are cheaper in Nova Scotia than southern Ontario. "When you talk about the cost of actually committing to a long-term, 100-year contract, we're really at a competitive advantage here in the Maritimes," he said. "We know that the Acadian forests ... is a very stable, diverse forest type."

Community Forests International has bought 705 acres of forest outside Sussex, N.B. Polluters including power generators and fuel importers buy credits to compensate for the greenhouse gases they emit. 

Prest said a forest managed specifically for storing carbon in the trunks and branches of trees is more efficient at keeping carbon out of the atmosphere than a forest managed for something like timber production. 

The Medway Community Forest Co-op says the land it manages for the provincial government is extremely diverse. (Alain Belliveau/Medway Community Forest Co-op)

Landowners could get $50 to $100 per hectare, per year. Prest said contracts commit the landowner to managing the forest for carbon storage for 100 years, since that's about the time carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere once it's emitted. He didn't detail how that century-long commitment would work after the original landowner dies. 

"[Offsetting] is just one way that we can economically reward landowners that can capture and store carbon in their forests and keep it stored there securely for a hundred years."

Offsetting displaces deforestation

But Saint Mary's University professor Kate Ervine said that while preserving forests is very important, there are "real problems" with the idea that these forests can be used to help polluters who are legally required to lower their emissions.

"They don't actually lower their emissions, they've bought a credit," she said.

Ervine said research shows that offsetting doesn't necessarily reduce deforestation, but can simply displace it from one place to another. 

Ervine also said that forests are an inconsistent tool for taking carbon out of the atmosphere, since environmental conditions like drought and forest fire affect how much carbon they sequester. 

Tackling the root of the problem

Ervine teaches environment and development at SMU. She said the main issue with carbon offsetting is that it doesn't address the principal source of additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: burning fossil fuels.

"What we need to do is stop putting new sources of carbon into the atmosphere, and carbon forestry licenses us to continue to pollute."

Ervine said a better solution for preserving forests might be to have companies that can't reduce their emissions further to pay into a green forest fund. "But let's not count them as real emission reductions that the company undertook, because they didn't."

With files from CBC's Information Morning