Clemson workshop explores carbon market’s potential profits for SC landowners

Ask Michael Dawson about entering the carbon market and whether he would go back and do it again, and his answer is simple: “In a skinny minute.”

The process itself, however, is more complex.

South Carolina’s Francis Beidler Forest — the world’s largest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest — sold roughly 450,000 carbon credits for no less than $8 per credit in California’s carbon market in 2014, and a recent Clemson Extension workshop helped South Carolina landowners learn more about the carbon market and how they can create a new revenue stream and help combat climate change.

“We had a wonderful experience with this,” said Dawson, retired center director of the Audubon Center and Sanctuary at Francis Beidler Forest. “It is a commitment, it’s a big project and you have to be serious about it, but our net result was wonderful and, if your land will warrant it, I recommend it wholeheartedly.”

As part of the Carbon Market for South Carolina project, funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Clemson workshop focused on educating the state’s forest landowners about the amount of carbon sequestered through various forest management activities and how they can be sellers of carbon credits from their forest areas.

“Our goal was to investigate information about the California carbon market for landowners in the state of South Carolina and also training graduate students to be future professionals in this market,” said Marzieh Motallebi, an assistant professor at Clemson University’s Belle W. Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science. “Improving forest management practices can improve wildlife health, improve soil quality and water quality and enhance biodiversity.”

Forests act as carbon sinks and play an important role in combating climate change and its impacts caused by human activities. Greenhouse gas emissions anywhere affect the global environment and people everywhere, leading to a push for international cooperation in combating climate change.

Some notable market-based programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions include the European Union’s Emissions Trading System, the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Midwestern Regional Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord.

But the Extension workshop was focused on California’s Cap-and-Trade Program (CA-CTP), the second-largest carbon market in the world with the aim of reducing California’s GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The California carbon market also has the highest carbon price in the world.

Sarah Wescott, forest program manager of the Climate Action Reserve in California, discussed how California’s program is pioneering a unique way to reduce the impact of climate change by helping forest owners around the U.S. change the way they manage their land and offering a credit for each extra ton of carbon dioxide their trees sequester.

People and companies in California that are required by the state to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions can purchase the credits, each of which are worth about $10. Since 2013, about 3 million tons of forest offsets have been purchased and used by California emitters each year — the equivalent to taking every passenger vehicle in the state off the road for a week.

“Offsets are a useful tool to provide different industries that are not regulated to reduce their emissions,” Wescott said. “And so once they generate those credits, those sellers will transact the credits with buyers that are wanting to reduce their emissions voluntarily or required to reduce their emissions by some sort of state law or cap-and-trade program.”

Wescott said the credits are issued through an ongoing monitoring, reporting and verification program under which landowners monitor their forests, calculate the actual carbon reductions and verify it through a third party.

“In order to ensure the quality of offsets, we have several standards that our protocols all have to meet,” she said. “We want to make sure that the reductions are real. That makes sure that they are quantified in a conservative, accurate manner. We also have to make sure that they are additional. That means that we’re not giving credit for something that would have taken place anyway. We also require that the reductions be permanent, which we define as 100 years.”

Lucas Clay, a master’s student in Clemson’s department of forestry and environmental conservation, discussed the potential for South Carolina forests to contribute to the California carbon market.

Clay said a significant number of South Carolina’s counties were comprised of more than 50 to 60 percent of forested lands, and the state’s total forested acres are just more than 13 million, or about 65 percent of its land.

Private owners hold 88 percent of the state’s forestlands — or about 11.3 million acres — and forestry contributes $17.5 billion annually to South Carolina income and provides support for almost 45,000 families.

“That’s the first indicator of the fact that South Carolina is a good place for the carbon market,” Clay said. “Forestry and timber production are extremely important to South Carolina. But at the same time, only 20 percent of the forest landowners are commercially harvesting tracts for production. So that leaves 80 percent of the 88 percent of private forested lands that are potentially not used for large-scale timber production.”

And that 80 percent of land that is not in timber production could potentially generate carbon market revenue.

Hunter Parks owns a farm in North Carolina, Mattamuskeet Ventures, that became the site of the first Avoided Conversion Carbon Offset Forestry project in the U.S., permanently dedicating a percentage of his land to continuous forest cover and generating carbon credits for doing so.

Parks, who is also founder and chairman of Green Assets Inc., a leading forest offset developer, said it is important for landowners to consider their intentions and future plans for their property before using it to enter the carbon market.

“I tell a client that their property is not fitted for this project a lot more than I say the opposite, that they are,” he said. “As a landowner, the worst thing I can do is get a landowner involved in this project that it doesn’t fit or won’t fit down the road. … There’s a lot of discussion around who does this and who pays this and how much does it cost. In this day and age, you absolutely need to hire a carbon offset developer to do one of these projects.”

Dawson echoed Parks’ sentiment that it was essential to hire a project developer in undertaking a carbon offset project.

“It is a very complicated process … and you want to be comfortable with whatever project developer you commit to,” he said. “And in our case, (the company that serves as) our forestry managers are involved in a lot of the inventory and that sort of stuff, and we wanted to be sure that they were up to speed and comfortable with the project. So, those are the sorts of considerations that we needed as an organization to be comfortable with before embarking on the project in the first place.”