Guest Author: Katie Hsia-Kiung, Former EDF High-Meadows Fellow
EDF’s Innovators Series profiles companies and people across California with bold solutions to reduce carbon pollution and help the state meet the goals of AB 32. Each addition to the series will profile a different solution, focused on the development of new technologies and ideas.
Although the Yurok Tribe is the largest Native American tribe by membership in California, it has struggled for centuries to keep hold of its ancestral land – an integral part of the Tribe’s livelihood. As European settlers moved in, the Yurok culture of living in unison with nature was rapidly and repeatedly challenged, as their land was taken and the natural ecosystems on which they depend were disrupted. In the New World economy that emerged, a person could make money from this acquired land in one of only three ways. The first was by cutting down the trees to harvest timber. The second was by cutting down the trees to create farmland. The third was by selling the land, most likely to someone who was hoping to cut down the trees for one of the first two purposes.
This story has played out countless times across the world, but California’s cap-and-trade program is changing the existing paradigm by creating a fourth way to derive revenue from forestland through the creation of an active carbon offsets market. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has approved five types of offset protocols for use in cap and trade, one of which is for U.S. forestry projects. This offset protocol gives forest landowners that meet stringent certification criteria a financial incentive to keep sustainable inventories of trees, and their carbon, on the land as opposed to cutting and hauling it all away. Companies regulated under the cap-and-trade program may purchase certified offset credits to account for a small percentage of the greenhouse gas pollution they produce. In this way, offsets can provide valuable opportunities to cut pollution while also creating valuable sources of revenue for landowners.
CARB approved the first offsets under the U.S forestry protocol this past April for an innovative project developed on some of the land that the Yurok Tribe previously reacquired. The Tribe chose to work with New Forests, a sustainable forestry investment firm that finances, develops, and markets offset credits issued to forest carbon offset projects, to preserve almost 8,000 acres of forestland. So far, this swath of forestland is responsible for sequestering more than 800,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which have been turned into offset credits registered with and supported by the Climate Action Reserve. In order to generate these credits, the Yurok Tribe and New Forests were required to demonstrate the emission reductions were additional to business as usual forest management, and the Tribe has committed to maintaining the sequestered carbon in the project area for 100 years.
This project was a significant source of revenue for the Yurok Tribe, and helped fund land management and restoration activities on additional tribal land, while also financing Yurok Tribal programs that provide services to its members. According to Vice Chair Susan Masten of the Yurok Tribe, “due to the heavy logging activity that occurred around the Blue Creek Drainage, there’s been significant degradation of habitat as well as fish population, by 80-90% from what it had been historically. We wanted to restore this land to its fullest capacity and the revenue from the carbon market offsets allowed us to do that.” The Tribe’s livelihood is inextricably linked to the land they live on, and its restoration is helping to “preserve our way of life,” says Masten. The tribe has also implemented another forestry project, generating over one million offset credits under the Climate Action Reserve. These credits are currently awaiting final CARB approval for use under the cap-and-trade program.
Not only is the offset market incentivizing carbon sequestration and providing vital revenue for additional restoration of wildlife and watershed health, it is also creating jobs within the Yurok community, helping cut into the Tribe’s historically high unemployment rate. The project and offset revenue has contributed to increased jobs within the Tribe’s departments of Forestry, Watershed, Fisheries, and Culture, and have helped support the Tribe’s social programs by contributing discretionary funds.
New Forests’ investment activities illustrate another way in which California policies are creating low-carbon economic growth. The Sydney-based firm opened an office in San Francisco explicitly due to California’s climate law. New Forests is currently developing forest carbon offset projects on over 115,000 acres of forestland primarily in California, including a project in development with the Round Valley Tribe to generate offsets from over 5,000 acres of their forestland. According to Brian Shillinglaw, who manages New Forests’ carbon investment operations in North America and is working with the Yurok people on this project, “Our partnerships with the Yurok Tribe and other California forest landowners have demonstrated that the California forest carbon offset protocol can deliver real financial results and significant environmental benefits. The California carbon market will incentivize sustainable forestry, forest conservation, and improved wildlife habitat on forest lands in California and throughout the United States.”
As the cap-and-trade market matures, demand for forest carbon offsets and offsets from other project types is likely to grow. And with that market development, we will see far-reaching environmental and social benefits for years to come.
Please note that EDF has a standing corporate donation policy and we accept no funding from companies or organizations featured in this series. Furthermore, the EDF California Innovators Series is in no way an official endorsement of the people or organizations featured, or their business models and practices.
Katie Hsia-Kiung is a High Meadows Research Fellow with our US Climate and Energy Program.