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Risks to forest carbon offset projects in a changing climate

Galik, CS, RB Jackson
Forest Ecology and Management
Journal Volume/Pages: 
257: 2209–2216

When included as part of a larger greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction program, forest offsets may provide low-cost opportunities for GHG mitigation. One barrier to including forest offsets in climate policy is the risk of reversal, the intentional or unintentional release of carbon back to the atmosphere due to storms, fire, pests, land use decisions, and many other factors. To address this shortcoming, a variety of different strategies have emerged to minimize either the risk or the financial and environmental implications of reversal. These strategies range from management decisions made at the individual stand level to buffers and set-asides that function across entire trading programs. For such strategies to work, the actual risk and magnitude of potential reversals need to be clearly understood. In this paper we examine three factors that are likely to influence reversal risk: natural disturbances, such as storms, fire, and insect outbreaks, climate change, and landowner behavior. Although increases in atmospheric CO2 and to a lesser extent warming will likely bring benefits to some forest ecosystems, temperature stress may result in others. Furthermore, optimism based on experimental results of physiology and growth must be tempered with knowledge that future large-scale disturbances and extreme weather events are also likely to increase. At the individual project level, management strategies such as manipulation of forest structure, age, and composition can be used to influence carbon sequestration and reversal risk. Because some management strategies have the potential to maximize risk or carbon objectives at the expense of the other, policymakers should ensure that forest offset policies and programs do not provide the singular incentive to maximize carbon storage. Given the scale and magnitude of potential disturbance events in the future, however, management decisions at the individual project level may be insufficient to adequately address reversal risk; other, non-silvicultural strategies and policy mechanisms may be necessary. We conclude with a brief review of policy mechanisms that have been developed or proposed to help manage or mitigate reversal risk at both individual project and policy-wide scales.

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