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March 1, 2023

5 Questions Everyone Should Be Asking About Carbon Credits


How to differentiate high-quality carbon credits from those that are not

We are at a tipping point in the global fight to end the climate crisis. It is happening more quickly than we feared. But we are far from powerless in the face of this global threat.

Corporations worldwide today are taking part in the most promising solution by investing directly in restoring forests. They’re doing this through voluntary carbon credit markets to offset greenhouse gas emissions they can’t eliminate on their own.

Although recent media reports have raised doubts about the veracity and integrity of forest projects that generate carbon credits, net-zero corporate programs are increasingly using carbon credits to reduce their total carbon footprint. The key issue is how to find and use high-quality carbon credits versus those that are not. 

How can you spot the difference? Ask these five questions to any organization operating a carbon credit program..

What kind of carbon removal creates the highest-quality carbon credit?

There are many technologies for removing carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere. Natural carbon removal by planting and growing trees enhances the ability of ecosystems to sequester carbon in biomass and soils. Improved practices to agricultural soil management can remove CO2 from the atmosphere by increasing carbon uptake and reducing carbon loss. Technical removals include direct air capture, which removes CO2 from the air with machines and then stores it underground or uses it to make products such as building materials and low-carbon fuels; and carbon mineralization, which occurs when CO2 in the air reacts with certain minerals to become a solid carbonate that permanently stores captured carbon.

Nature is not an offset, it is a technology – mother nature’s technology. As the late Jim Rogers, the former Chairman and CEO of Duke Energy once told me, “there are two forms of IP in this world, technological IP and how you get to scale most technology fails in how you get to scale.” Nature is scale, the question is how do we organize it. 

Nature-based removals are the only viable technology today for repairing the past and recalibrating the atmosphere. The National Academy of Sciences states that planting trees is the fastest solution with the lowest risk for implementing on a large scale to combat climate change. As one-third of all the emissions released into the atmosphere since 1750 – since the beginning of the industrial revolution – has come from changes in land use, and predominantly from deforestation, The Nature Conservancy, World Resources Institute and others estimate the combined climate impact of halting deforestation, restoring forestland and improving forestry practices could reduce and remove seven billion metric tons of CO2 each year – a number that represents more than one-third of the climate mitigation required by 2030. Planting trees and minimizing further forest loss are the most immediate means to preventing a rise in global mean temperature. Technical removals such as direct air capture and carbon mineralization are nowhere near scaling the amount needed to make a noticeable contribution to mitigating climate change; they also each carry intense requirements for capital, land and energy. 

Science says to stave off a 1.5 degree rise we need to both reduce emissions moving forward and scale up nature to remove what has already been released to the atmosphere. This is not an either or situation. This is And+ – Renewables And Nature+ all the co-benefits. The road to full decarbonization is tough and by itself will not solve the climate crises. Again, Nature is not an offset, it is a technology — and a powerful one that scales rapidly. 

How are carbon credits verified?

Projects that are issued carbon credits for forest projects follow an extensive protocol, applying rigorous scientific methods, to ensure actions deliver climate benefits. Verification of carbon credits begins with the measurement of landowners’ tree stands by foresters. At GreenTrees, all of our carbon credits from projects then undergo a rigorous, four-step verification process by the American Carbon Registry. Each ACR verification is conducted by an independent auditor who is accredited by several bodies, including the International Organisation for Standardization and the American National Standards Institute. The verification process from start to finish typically takes seven to nine months – and sometimes can take up to 14 months. This extensive timeline is due to the rigorous work required by the verification organization to meticulously review documents, calculations and geospatial data and apply the relevant standards and methodologies. For our GreenTrees program, projects submitted for verification include more than 10,000 documents, detailed data about several hundred plots of land and geospatial data for all of our 600+ landowners. 

It’s critical to understand that high-quality offset credits are only issued after a tree has already stored the amount of carbon dioxide in its biomass. This amount is regularly measured, documented and then certified. This ensures carbon benefits are realized today and not in the future. At GreenTrees, we only sell our carbon credits ex post facto, that is, once the carbon benefit is realized, rather than ex ante, where carbon benefits are to be delivered at a future point in time. We produce first, trade next. Our carbon credits are not based on forecasts, projections or predictions; they’re bankable climate benefits.

Enrolling a forestry project on a carbon registry like the American Carbon Registry represents an immediately effective, legally binding and public-facing commitment to long-term carbon sequestration where it previously was absent. It is a tangible, firm and immediate action to increase and directly quantify carbon sequestration according to a scientifically-reviewed and published framework. Each project must exceed all currently effective laws and regulations, exceed common practice management of similar forests in the region and face at least one of three barriers – financial, technical or institutional – to their implementation. 

Who owns the land on which your credits are based and where is it located?

Any credible nature-based carbon credit program can tell you exactly where the land is located on which the credits are based, who owns the land and how the land is being managed long-term. GreenTrees has planted forests in three primary areas within the United States: the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the U.S. southeastern region. Land in GreenTrees’ projects is owned by individuals and organizations, both large and small, ranging from 10 to 3,500+ acres.

How do I read and decode ACR Carbon Serial Numbers?

For Illustrative Purposes Only

Serial Numbers at ACR have specific meaning:

  • ACR (Registry)
  • US (Country)
  • 114 (Project ID)
  • 2020 (Vintage)
  • 1319 (Batch Number)
  • 1 (Starting Credit)
  • 500000 (Ending Credit)

How do you ensure durability and permanence of the climate benefits delivered by carbon credits? 

Trees like people are not permanent but forests and humanity can be. The oldest rainforest in the world is 180 million years old. Companies should seek out partners that not only can provide verification of permanence through alignment with an accredited standards body but also have a dedicated plan to long-term monitoring and engagement of the land involved. Growing new forests is a long and complex undertaking to yield the vast volumes of carbon credit supply needed. Landowners enter into a partnership with a carbon credit project because they want their trees to be healthy and productive for the future. But most lack the technical expertise, in addition to the funds, needed to implement sustainable practices that increase carbon sequestration and storage. 

Providing access to carbon markets resolves the cost issues for landowners; providing continued education and guidance helps shift the landowners’ long-term relationship with their land. Our GreenTrees foresters in the field oversee the enrollment of acres, plantings, forest growth patterns, quality control issues and landowner relations – all with great personal care. In our 20 years of contracting land for new forests, using an interplanting regime to optimize carbon and forest production, and sustain permanently ecologically health forests, we have more than 50,000,000 trees under management on some 130,000 acres, yielding in the range of 750,000 tons of new carbon credits for the market each year. 

If you’re serious about climate change and taking actions to reduce its impacts, nature-based carbon removals are the only currently scalable technology for repairing the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. The voluntary market for carbon credits in recent years has grown significantly – McKinsey & Company estimates buyers purchased carbon removal and reduction credits for 95 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in 2020, more than twice as many credits purchased in 2017. 

To effectively understand the role of carbon removal credits as they continue on their rapid path in net-zero programs, the above five questions are essential for separating the highest-quality carbon credits with the most tangible benefits to combating climate impacts from those that are the focus of recent media reports.