How to Grow ACCU Value through Native Reforestation
It’s heartening to see many of Australia’s biggest organisations are making big strides in renewable energy and green hydrogen projects, however creating that very infrastructure has a carbon cost of its own and requires land use for the industry. Where emissions can’t be abated, businesses must look for carbon offset options such as native reforestation.
The race is now on for quality carbon offsets — verifiable, genuine carbon sequestration methods that offer real value to businesses, the environment and the community.
It seems the best option is also the oldest: plants. We know of no other current carbon drawdown solution that is quantitatively as large in terms of carbon capture. Revegetation feeds the biogenic carbon cycle to sequester carbon. The literal essence of ‘green,’ photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere as plants use it to create the simple sugars that go on to grow leaves, roots, and stems. The byproduct is beneficial to all animals: oxygen.
In Australia, about 78% of reforestation projects for carbon sequestration are mixed-species plantings (typically indigenous mixtures of tree and understory shrub species) and monocultures of mallee eucalypts. At Plantrite, we’re advocates for increasing biodiversity that creates strong environmental impact and better value for all stakeholders.
How does biogenic carbon sequestration compare to other methods?
The world’s first Carbon Capture, Use, and Storage (CCUS) project took place in Texas in 1972, using captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. The process was close to what we, today, would call fracking. Using waste carbon dioxide from a gas field 400 kilometres away, near the Mexican border, the gas extended the life of their oilfield, while venting the gas, producing more oil and more emissions in the process.
While more sophisticated and less polluting methods have since been developed, by the end of 2020, more than 80% of US CCUS projects had failed1, mostly due to underinvestment, stakeholder withdrawal or engineering failures.
Countering carbon dioxide emissions by packing it underground in a limestone aquifer may have its place and be effective at storing greenhouse gases. However, it’s only addressing one part of the ecological damage our species has wrought on nature: CO2. And while human-driven climate change is a major factor in species extinction, so too is habitat loss through clearing for agriculture and resource extraction.
What are the secondary benefits of carbon sequestration through reforestation?
We’ve known for decades now that clearing deep-rooted perennial trees has contributed to rising water tables and salinity issues. On farms and in communities at risk of saline soils destroying their way of life, planting the right mix of deep-rooted species may help to slow or reverse this trend.
It’s just one of the many ways plants are the great filter of the planet. For example, exposure to air pollutants has proven to increase a community’s risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, and cancers. Trees absorb pollutants and dust from the air, which helps improve air quality for the local area. The right trees and shrubs can slow top-soil loss from wind and water erosion, and act as a barrier to the plumes of pollen from cereal and food-oil crops that contribute to debilitating hayfever each season.
Native trees, shrubs and grasses also reduce pollutants like animal effluent and fertilisers from entering waterways. In sucking up those nutrients, they’re reducing the chance of algal blooms and related mass fish deaths.
Lastly, while extreme weather events cannot be attributed to one particular factor, good forest management can help to reduce the severity of floods and fires.
Areas devoid of deep-rooted plants become more flood prone, as water is not as quickly absorbed into the soil. Plants, along with the animals and microorganisms they support, enrich soils with organic matter that makes it more water-permeable. Root systems drink up rain and the earth becomes more like a sponge instead of accumulating water on the surface that can flood inhabited areas.
While native planting and forest management may require a little more forethought and human labour, compared to turning an underground aquifer into a SodaStream, reforestation comes out miles ahead in shared ecological and societal benefits.
How is carbon sequestration verified?
Programmes differ depending on the region in question, but the Australian model earns participants ACCUs (Australian Carbon Credit Units), which are tradeable through the Clean Energy Regulator. Reforestation accounts for approximately 58% of all carbon credits contracted under the scheme.
Eligible carbon abatement projects can claim ACCUs through the Federal Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), the national scheme facilitating “technology-agnostic emissions reduction incentives.”
One ACCU represents the avoidance or removal of one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2-e) of greenhouse gas.
ACCUs are a financial product, a tradeable token of value, but note that this blog is not intended as financial advice. Speak to an independent financial advisor to determine if participating in a carbon credit programme is right for your organisation.
To ensure the integrity of the ACCU program, the Australian government has established a rigorous system for verifying carbon sequestration projects. We’ve outlined the general process of meaning ‘carbon credits’ here:
- Project registration: Register their project with the Clean Energy Regulator (CER) and provide detailed information about the project’s design, methodology, and expected carbon abatement outcomes.
- Validation: The CER engages an accredited third-party validator to assess the project’s design and methodology. The validator checks that the project complies with the relevant rules and standards, and that the expected carbon abatement outcomes are realistic and verifiable.
- Monitoring: Once the project is validated, the proponent must implement the project and monitor its performance over time. This involves regularly measuring and reporting on the project’s carbon sequestration outcomes, using approved methods and tools.
- Verification: After a set period, an accredited third-party verifier will assess the project’s performance against the expected outcomes. The verifier checks that the monitoring data is accurate and reliable and that the project has achieved the expected outcomes.
- Issuance of ACCUs: If the verification is successful, the CER issues ACCUs to the project proponent. The number of ACCUs issued is based on the verified amount of carbon sequestered.
- Registry transfer: The proponent can then transfer the ACCUs to the National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS) Registry, where they can be sold or used to offset the owner’s own emissions.
The process is independently audited and verified to ensure the integrity of the ACCU program. Auditing is essential to avoid fraudulent behaviour undermining the trust in the carbon trading market.
There have been some examples of less than heartening practices around Carbon Credit programs. This eye-opening Four Corners episode highlights the issues around carbon trading schemes when they are not fully understood or observed.
Is reforestation enough to get to Net Zero in time?
To limit the worst effects of climate change, various bodies have estimated that human emissions must reach net zero by 2050, something that is only achievable through a combination of direct emissions reductions and sequestration.
It’s important to remember that reforestation does more than sequester carbon from the atmosphere, however, also supporting ecosystems and preserving our native flora and fauna, of which 86 species are now critically endangered in Australia.
A 2019 study published in the journal Science estimated that the globally available land (that is potentially suitable) could support another 2.2 billion acres of forests globally; 25 percent more forested area than we have now. By planting more than a half trillion trees, the study found we could capture about 205 gigatons of carbon (a gigaton is 1 billion metric tons), reducing atmospheric carbon by about 25 percent.
However, before undertaking any revegetation or expansion of a natural habitat, we must ensure that the right types of plants are selected, as not all areas can or should support trees. Planting trees in ecosystems that are normally dominated by other types of vegetation often fails to result in any long term benefit – carbon sequestration or otherwise.
It’s a big job, and reforestation alone cannot solve the problem of climate change, but as part of a business’s carbon sequestration strategy it can make a significant contribution to reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions — and saving our future generations in the process.
To discuss how Plantrite can support your revegetation or reforestation projects, including carbon farming initiatives, please get in touch.
- Explaining successful and failed investments in U.S. carbon capture and storage (2021, Ahmed Abdulla et al, Environ. Res. Lett. 16 014036), Retrieved from https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/abd19e/pdf
- Dryland salinity in Western Australia (2022, Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development), Retrieved from https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/soil-salinity/dryland-salinity-western-australia-0#
- Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. (2020, Emissions Reduction Fund). Retrieved from https://www.cleanenergyregulator.gov.au/ERF
- The global tree restoration potential (2019, Science VOL. 365, NO. 6448), Retrieved from https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aax0848