A Recommendation on How to Account for Carbon Sinks in Campus Forests or Lands
By Jennifer Andrews, Campus Program Manager, Clean Air-Cool Planet
This article provides an overview of challenges related to accounting for campus-based carbon sequestration. CA-CP will be offering a series of webinars with expert speakers to delve into more specifics. Please check www.cleanair-coolplanet.org for forthcoming dates, times, and guest presenters.
In the years that CA-CP has been working with colleges, universities, and others to track and reduce carbon emissions, I've lost count of the number of greenhouse gas inventory questions we have gotten about carbon sinks from campus forests or other land. The questions generally fall into three camps: whether to measure such sinks, how to measure them, and, how to report them.
Long-time users of the Campus Carbon Calculator will know that there has always been a placeholder for forest sinks or offsets in the tool, but never a built-in calculation method for that analysis. The reasons for that intentional omission are the same reasons that have made it difficult to give declarative "right" answers to the many questions posited related to forest (and other land-use) sinks. However, given the growing interest in these accounting questions by ACUPCC signatories, it seems useful to try to sort them out together, adopting some common foundations for moving forward in tracking and reporting—and ultimately, reducing—our greenhouse gas emissions.
Question 1: Whether to count
The most fundamental questions come down to whether institutions "should" measure the occurrence of biological carbon sequestration from campus owned and/or (depending on how organizational boundaries have been drawn) managed lands. There are a number of reasons why signatories might be interested in doing so:
- Measuring biological carbon sequestration on campus lands is seen as a way to inform or bolster wise, effective campus land management policies; or,
It's seen as a path to useful educational or research opportunities, or as more scientifically complete;or,
It's seen as a way to "get credit" in your GHG report and reduce the perceived climate impact of the institution.
The first two reasons are potentially meritorious, though even they may not yield an automatic "yes." Since it will require time and resources to undertake that analysis, the answer must depend on the individual situation: will the benefits in terms of campus policy guidance, or research/education opportunities, outweigh the institutional investment required? If so, by all means, count. (Just know that you'll have to be careful about how you report—and we'll get into that shortly.)
The third reason—to reflect an offset to one's overall carbon footprint—gets into rather more nebulous territory. If this is your goal, the only situation in which you really should bother counting your biological sequestration is if it meets the criteria of an offset (that is, if it is additional, real, measurable, permanent, verified, etc.—see ACUPCC Voluntary Carbon Offset Protocol, November 2008.
Greenhouse gas inventories were originally undertaken at a national scale as primarily scientific endeavors, and in that context it made sense to try to account for all carbon, emitted or sequestered, within national boundaries. However, entity-level inventories are a different story.
Consider: the reason ACUPCC signatories are asked to count carbon is so that they will be able to develop transformative carbon management strategies. Institutional GHG inventories report carbon dioxide, methane, and other annual GHG emissions because these additions continue to destabilize the already-unbalanced current atmospheric carbon "equation." The institutional GHG inventory is not meant to be an inventory of all existing institutional carbon exchange, but rather, a snapshot of the ways in which institutional activities are further altering the equation of global atmospheric carbon exchange in any given year.
If we understand that entity-level carbon inventories are meant more as a policy tool to reduce the problematic overabundance of GHGs in the atmosphere than to scientifically catalogue what carbon exists where, the role biological sequestration will play in our inventory reports should become clearer. This is why, while it would not be accurate in this context to report as an offset the carbon sequestered from an existing forest, you could potentially count an addition to that forest, or even a change in forest management practices that resulted in a sustained increase in the uptake of carbon, as an offset to your emissions (assuming it met other offset criteria).
Question 2: How to count
In some ways this is the most straightforward question. Taken literally, it is a matter of pure, quantifiable biology and chemistry: how much carbon dioxide will a forest, or a wetland, or a field, sequester? Of course it quickly gets more complicated, since the answer will vary depending on the location and specific composition of the ecosystem in question—and there is the ever-thorny issue of how long they will sequester carbon. Achieving specificity and accuracy in this analysis, while certainly possible, can quickly become labor intensive—so again, it will be important to weigh the work against the reward.
For those who want more specific guidance around doing these calculations, I recommend two essential starting points: the IPCC's Special Report on Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry, a guidance document for national inventories that includes some regional sequestration factors; and the GHG Protocol's Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry Guidance for GHG Project Accounting, which is designed specifically for entity-level accounting and provides guidance and emissions factor sources for how to estimate carbon stocks as well as how to estimate land-use change rates.
Question 3: How to report
There are really two different kinds of inventory reporting: there is the very detailed, idiosyncratic, campus-specific inventory report that drives campus decision-making, and there is the more public, more standardized report which contributes to a broader collective understanding of campus climate action. The former can be used to present individual stories or lessons learned related to campus land use planning and stewardship, or enhanced understanding borne out of research or experiential learning; this trait is what has traditionally set the more scientifically-grounded carbon accounting in the higher education world very much apart from the same practice undertaken by businesses or local governments. While that more expansive and scientific view is important, we also need more standardized reporting that tells a very focused story about how much carbon we are effectively adding or removing every year from the atmospheric carbon equation.
Obviously, we care deeply about what our reports communicate regarding our level of institutional leadership and our need to make changes. It is understandable to want our carbon inventories to reflect our good work and good intentions, and to present a message in consistent accord with our broader sustainability efforts. That said, one of the really important opportunities afforded by having so many colleges and universities learning together through their ACUPCC commitments is that of clarifying what the different aspects of our campus GHG inventory reports really are communicating.
To that point, it's worthwhile to remember that all of these reporting questions have a context broader than that of the ACUPCC. While the voluntary nature of carbon accounting in the US has meant—and frankly still means—that there is no official "right" way to calculate and report emissions, basic protocols do exist and have been very widely adopted. These standard practices, codified in the guidance documents offered by the GHG Protocol, have been designed based on the premise outlined herein of inventory-as-measure-of-change. Building off of that GHG Protocol foundation, a national program called The Climate Registry has been launched as a cross-sectoral platform for GHG tracking and reporting.
The ACUPCC Reporting System to which signatories report was developed to facilitate meaningful standardized reporting within the higher education sector—but also, beyond it. The system's reporting categories deliberately parallel those of The Climate Registry to a large degree, as an implicit recognition that it is ultimately unproductive to create different accounting standards for higher education than exist for businesses, local governments, etc. Accordingly, the Reporting System adopts the primary conventions of the GHG Protocol and The Climate Registry, and in that context the most accurate, relevant reporting convention related to forest sinks is to only report as "offsets" those reductions that are truly additional. This means it would be misleading to count carbon sequestered in existing forests and subtract that from your "total." In your narrative you may very well note that your campus forest land is sequestering "x tons" annually, but where we are reporting actual line-item numbers, it would be within the spirit of accurate accounting practices to only report additional forest sinks.
Since this is not a reporting convention uniformly followed in the ACUPCC Reporting System currently, this recommendation may cause concerns or questions for some readers. The intent is not to minimize the importance of your land stewardship or to undermine your carbon reduction efforts, but rather to bring some focus and standardization to the discrete quantitative data collected, and to facilitate a more consistent collective understanding of how effectively we are moving toward that goal of transformative campus leadership.
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