In a historic move that could change the face of forestry in Canada and even potentially the Canadian landscape, the federal government has launched a Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Offset Credit System as part of Canada’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan.
This changes everything. Tree farming on previously unforested land, called afforestation, has suddenly become affordable.
Forest companies—and landowners—will soon have the ability to begin to recuperate the cost of establishing tree farms the year after making the investment, through the sale of GHG offset credits. All that is currently lacking is the federally-developed offset protocols for forest management, which are currently being developed and presumably will be announced before 2030.
And it’s about time. Trees are nature’s carbon sponges. How do we know that? Because we already know how much carbon dioxide is sequestered as a percentage of the volume of a tree. On an individual tree basis, the formula to convert the mass, for example, of a hybrid poplar to its potential for carbon and carbon dioxide sequestration is volume in cubic metres multiplied by dry weight in kilograms multiplied by 45 per cent and then multiplied by 3.667 to arrive at the CO2 equivalent. A reference sheet is available from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC).
Given this opportunity to sell carbon offset credits from tree farms, it’s worth reviewing the numbers compiled and verified by CWFC for forestry companies and landowners to understand why this pursuit is worthwhile.
According to the CWFC, native species in natural forests average 1.7 cubic metres per hectare per year of fibre production.
Initially, it will make the most sense for forest companies and landowners to plant fast-growing species like clonal hybrid poplar and select aspen to maximize carbon sequestration potential. With afforestation of fast-growing hardwood clones, production increases 6 to 12 times that of the natural forest, delivering a significant fibre production sequestration enhancement and more fibre more quickly for forest companies. It is possible to achieve an increased production of 13 to 20 carbon dioxide equivalent tonnes vs. a natural forest per hectare per year over the first 30 years of growth.
CWFC has also determined that one tonne of sequestered carbon dioxide is equivalent to a 27 centimetre DBH hybrid poplar measuring 27 metres tall. That’s one tree. Now consider hundreds of trees planted on just one hectare of land. The effect, and income potential on the sale of offset credits, increases as more land is dedicated and more trees are grown on a properly managed tree farm.
Since the tree farm begins to grow within the first year, it is possible to calculate a plantation’s carbon sequestration potential within a defined area from that point onward, and the amount of carbon offset credit potential increases every year until the plantation reaches maturity. For a typical moderate to high intensity managed hybrid poplar plantation, the growth rate is 12 to 20 cubic metres of growth per hectare per year over the tree’s lifespan at 100 per cent stocking.
Suffice to say that the sectors most likely to realize an immediate potential dividend from this GHG offset credit program from a significantly increased fibre supply will be the pulp, panelboard and bioenergy industries.
However, the softwood industry can benefit as well by following CWFC’s mixedwood management plantation model, where a shade tolerant species like white spruce or white pine is planted in the understorey of fast-growing hardwood species, and achieves maturity at a significantly accelerated rate vs. the natural forest.
In other words, this presents the opportunity for both the lumber and pulp industries to co-operate on land management, sharing in the carbon offset credit revenue to help pay for the establishment of the plantation, while benefiting from additional fibre sources over a shorter time span. Softwood and hardwood consumers already co-operate on logging. Therefore, there is no reason why they cannot co-operate on tree farming.
There is plenty of room in Canada for both conventional crop farming and tree farming. The key is to plan strategically and aim, for example, at productive land parcels that are difficult to farm but could still generate income through the sale of carbon offset credits. Parcels as small as one hectare could still be monetized into a valuable tree farm.
Then there are also the intangible benefits to consider with tree farming on unforested land. Among these are additional nesting habitats for birds as well as cover and habitat for all forms of wildlife which have often suffered because of land clearing over the past two centuries. Leaf fall from hardwood crops also add nutrients to the soil and have a positive impact on moisture retention.
If Canada wants to achieve its GHG reduction targets, it’s going to have to do a lot more than just pump carbon dioxide back into the ground. Making tree farming affordable goes a long way toward building a natural climate change solution that can be a model for the rest of the world.
Written by Tony Kryzanowski