Seeing the carbon forest for the trees

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” Gertrude Stein famously wrote. But when is a rose not a rose, or a tree not a tree? Well, when it’s part of the world’s surging carbon offset market, trees are certainly not all created equal. Ask Coldplay: in an attempt to offset the carbon cost of producing their second album, the band pledged to plant 10,000 mango trees in Southern India. Just a handful of drought-stricken years later, only 40% survived. 

With analysts predicting that demand for carbon credits could increase by a factor of 15 by 2030, with a market worth more than $50 billion, getting nature-based solutions right represents a huge opportunity in our collective efforts to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. 

 

A growth market?

Voluntary carbon offsets (those not legally required for compliance purposes) are controversial for plenty of reasons: for being the corporate equivalent of a ‘papal indulgence’ that allows big polluters to continue their unabated emissions, for being notoriously opaque about where the money goes, and for a ‘murky’ lack of standards in reporting and analysis. 

But perhaps the biggest flaw in the design is how vulnerable these bastions against climate change are themselves to its impacts. Take forest-based offsetting: the amount of carbon that will be sequestered by a tree planted today depends on water stress, seasonal stability, biodiversity and soil quality – all of which will be affected by climate over its lifetime, as we all from more short term extreme events such as wildfire or flooding. Some of these trees may thrive. Some will live relatively productive lives. Many won’t survive beyond planting – and others will go up in smoke. And yet the carbon offset value is modelled without assessing these land based assets for any physical climate risk analysis. 

If nature-based carbon offsets, commonly referred to today as nature based solutions, (or NBS) are to be an essential part of our collective toolkit for tackling the climate crisis (and that is increasingly the consensus), how can we ensure that conditions are most conducive to their success? 

 

Climate-proofing your offset plan

“Climate Intelligence gives us a rigorous, robust view of the past, current and future climate impacts on any asset, from factories to farmland – and even land-based offsets. Combining Earth Science expertise, data modelling and machine learning, Climate Intelligence gives us the unprecedented ability to quantify, interpret, or integrate climate risks into core decisions to enhance any asset’s resilience”, says Sachin Kapila, Cervest’s Chief Climate Risk Officer.

Suppliers, buyers and investors of nature-based solutions can scrutinise potential sites to work out their suitability. How would various physical climate hazards, such as extreme heat, drought, precipitation, wildfire etc affect a land-based asset over time and different climate scenarios? Will rising temperatures or changing rainfall patterns support planned reforestation? Is there another site that could offer greater stability and better long-term carbon sequestration? ”It seems rather obvious that undertaking such a physical climate risk assessment should be a mandatory part of the NBS feasibility assessment”, says Sachin, who points to the growing volatility and extremity we are witnessing across the planet which is undermining the very integrity of NBS assets being used to combat climate change. “Here is the ultimate paradox unfolding as we speak, and it will require some type of policy intervention to change the rules”.

 

Knowledge = accountability 

Knowledge is the crucial missing piece of the NBS puzzle. If we can quantify the risk of a nature-based asset from today into the future, various stakeholders ranging from credit originators (suppliers), investors, buyers and on-the-ground partners can make more informed business related decisions about how best to design a more climate resilient asset. Built upon quantified, science-backed Climate Intelligence, it’s then possible to build these determinations into the modelling that will more accurately model the sequestration potential of any NBS asset. 

With interest in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis at an all-time high, and climate impacts increasingly being felt around the world, it’s time we took the guesswork out of offsetting. Instead of guesswork and tricks of accounting, we need transparency and accountability. Done well, with foresight and rigorous strategy, restored, protected and newly created land based assets could play a critical role in a rosier future. 

Find out how you can use bespoke, real-time Climate Intelligence to climate-proof your assets with Cervest’s EarthScan here