Climate Educator Guide, Activity 5: Investments in Forest Carbon
Students consider what makes the forest valuable to people, and then read a case study about a community in the Petén gearing up to sell carbon credits based on carbon sequestered in the community’s forests.
- Students understand that forests provide a number of valuable benefits, including carbon sequestration.
- Students understand that businesses and other people value carbon sequestration in the Petén’s forests, and are willing to pay money for it.
Forests provide a number of benefits--or ecosystem services--on which people depend. Forests protect watersheds by anchoring the soil and preventing soil erosion. Their leaves, twigs, and bark decay into rich humus that nourishes plants. They convert sun energy to chemical energy that can be stored and transferred through the food web. Through this process, they absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Forests also give shade, cool the air, modify local climates, and provide habitat for plant and animal species.
Forests are also crucial to the world economy. They provide wood-based goods such as lumber and paper, as well as non-wood products such as chicle and other gums, xate, medicines, oils, and spices.
One ecosystem service that is gaining interest around the world with global climate change is “carbon sequestration.” This is the long-term storage of carbon in trees and other carbon “sinks.”
When trees grow, they take in carbon dioxide (CO2), which is made up of one part carbon and two parts oxygen. They use the carbon to build new wood and other tissues, and release the oxygen back into the air. Through this process, growing forests reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and keep the carbon locked or “sequestered” in their wood.
Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can cause climate change. Because all countries of the world are concerned about the severe negative impacts that climate change can have, they are looking for ways to stop the emission of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide. Countries are working under the United Nations to develop a way to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation and increase carbon sequestration in forests. This initiative, called REDD+, is a plan to save forests, fight climate change and help local communities all at the same time. The details of REDD+ are not final at the international level, but already people are taking actions in this area.
The idea of REDD+ is that countries will measure how much forest they have at a certain moment in time, predict how much forest will be lost in the future and identify the sources of the deforestation. Then, these countries will take actions to stop deforestation and degradation of the forest, which can occur little by little and still have a large impact. The countries that reduce their rates of deforestation, thereby conserving carbon that would otherwise have been emitted, will receive payments for their efforts. If local forest communities participate in stopping deforestation, then they could be paid for the amount of carbon dioxide their existing forests remove from the atmosphere and store as new wood.
The people who invest in carbon sequestration or avoiding emissions are typically governments, companies, other organizations and individuals whose activities emit lots of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. They have an interest or a legal requirement to compensate for (balance) their greenhouse gas emissions with avoided greenhouse gas emissions or carbon sequestration.
Some investors might choose to support carbon sequestration or avoided emissions in forests by giving money to governments to improve policies or practices, such as penalizing those who cut down forests illegally or improving the management of protected areas. Other investors might want to support carbon sequestration or avoided emissions through a project that aims to change practices at a specific site, for example, by routing a new road through existing agricultural land instead of through forest.
When a country or project does something to permanently stop the release of carbon into the atmosphere or to increase sequestration, it can sell a credit equivalent to the amount of carbon that is permanently stored. The process of selling and buying carbon credits is known as carbon trading, and there is a market for carbon credits just as there is a market for timber. Unlike a town market, in the carbon market the buyer doesn’t actually take carbon from the seller. Instead, buyers receive the carbon credit, which is usually equal to one metric ton (tonne) of carbon dioxide. The carbon stays in the forest and the forest itself does not change owners.
In order to sell carbon credits, an avoided deforestation project must demonstrate that without the project, the forest would have been cut down. It also must prove that the size of the forest has remained the same from the start of the project to the current time. A reforestation project, on the other hand, must prove that trees would not have been planted without the project and that the specified number of trees really do grow to maturity. An outside organization is used to confirm that these claims are true. The process of checking a project’s plan to ensure that it meets certain standards is called validation, and the act of checking what has actually happened since the start of the project is called verification.
Investments in forest conservation for carbon sequestration and avoided emissions are good for local communities, as they can provide income to help people manage the forest more sustainably, like allowing trees to grow to maturity before cutting them down or restoring degraded areas of the forest. Such investments are also good for the global community because they lead to a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is the leading cause of global climate change.
In December 2010, countries under the United Nations agreed to establish a mechanism that would manage investments in forest conservation for carbon sequestration and avoided emissions. Developing countries that intend to participate will need to develop a national strategy, a national forest reference emission level or forest cover reference level, and a national forest monitoring system. If a community or country wants to use this “carbon financing” for forest conservation, it must think through the activities and commitments from start to finish and involve in the planning government, potential investors, and anyone expected to be impacted by the project.
- Student notebooks
Preparation: 10 minutes
Activity: one 50-minute class period
Look over the Carmelita Carbon Market Case Study [PDF], and be prepared to read or describe the information presented in it.
Doing the Activity
- Ask students, “What does it mean to value something? In what ways do you think people value our forests?”
- Divide the class into teams of three or four students. Tell them that they will work together to list different products or benefits people get from the forest. Encourage them to list as many things as possible that they can think of.
- After they have made their lists, have teams put a star next to the three things on their list they think are the most valuable. They should decide among their team members which ones to star.
- Point out that one way people show what they value is to pay money for it. Ask, “Besides paying money, what are other ways people might show they value something?” Have students circle any items that they think people might pay money for.
- Have teams share the most valuable items on their list. Also, have them share some of the items they think people might pay for. Ask, “Are the things you starred and the things you circled the same? Why might that be?”
- Ask students whether their team included carbon storage on their list. Remind them how forests taking in carbon dioxide and undergoing photosynthesis leads to the trees storing carbon in their trunks, branches, and roots. This “carbon sequestration” removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in trees. Explain to students that with global climate change, people are willing to pay for long-term storage of carbon in forest trees.
Read aloud the “Carbon Market Case Study: Carmelita” [PDF] student page or describe what is happening in Carmelita. Lead a discussion about the case study, asking:
- How do the carbon investments work? How is this system the same or different from a town market?
- How might the carbon investments help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?
- How might they help communities like Carmelita?
- What challenges might there be with this system?
- What do you think of people being able to “buy” credits to offset their own carbon emissions?
The Rainforest Alliance curriculum is unique in that it teaches science, math, language arts and social studies essentials while addressing the United States National Standards for Learning.
Social Studies, Language Arts, Math
From PLT Conceptual Framework:
- International cooperation directed toward conserving resources and protecting environmental quality is beneficial to human health and the well-being of other life forms. (2.6)
- Our increasing knowledge of the Earth’s ecosystems influences strategies used for resource management and environmental stewardship. (5.5)
Analyzing, Evaluating, Critical Thinking, Identifying Relationships and Patterns
Use the team lists from steps 2 and 3 of the activity to assess students’ understanding of ways people value forests.
- Carbon Market Case Study: Carmelita [PDF]
“REDD+.” Global Canopy Programme. - This 3.5- minute video introduces REDD.
“In Forests: The Challenge of Climate Change and Poverty.” Living on Earth. Air date week of April 23, 2010. - An interesting radio program on a REDD pilot project in Indonesia.