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A few days in Berlin

Posted on Tuesday, January, 1st, 2013

Developing a Peatland Carbon Code

I spent the last week of January in Berlin, sharing ideas with scientists and policy-makers from the UK, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and elsewhere. It was all about our peatlands: For the three days there were about forty of us all working on the next draft of Germany’s MoorFutures standard as well as the development of a possible UK Peatland Carbon Code. I gained the impression that both the UK and the German codes are well on their way to being credible carbon crediting mechanisms for voluntary buyers.

Forest Carbon Ltd was invited to contribute because of our experience in the field. As an ‘architect’ of the UK Woodland Carbon Code and advisor to the UK’s first private peat carbon transaction in 2011, our company is familiar with the demands and challenges of the tasks involved. But in Berlin, in the company of many experts, I learned a great deal more about the scientific and policy developments taking place for the restoration and protection of peatlands for carbon capture, biodiversity enhancement and water purification. I particularly enjoyed this workshop for its relaxed and open atmosphere. In such a setting our debates were allowed to be honest, vigorous and, as a result, enlightening. There was a constant sense of progress.

In comparing a woodland carbon code with a code for peat, I talked about common underlying principles, i.e. the need to ensure that projects are environmentally sound; that carbon estimates are accurate; that projects can be shown to have proceeded only with carbon funding and that project doesn’t give rise to some counter-balancing emissions elsewhere. We also discussed the major difference: whereas woodland creation is about greenhouse gas capture, peatland restoration is primarily about avoiding greenhouse gas loss. Forests constantly capture CO2, through photosynthesis, and store it, whereas peatlands have already completed this work and, if healthy, keep the carbon locked away (whilst also continuing to capture it at a very slow rate). Our drying, degrading peatlands are reversing this process and releasing their greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere, but restoration through re-wetting, and protection, will prevent this loss.

This distinction between carbon capture and avoided carbon loss could lead to an altogether different type of carbon credit for peat projects, based on the concept of permanence.

Carbon dioxide captured by new forests need to demonstrate its permanence by guaranteeing the trees will be in place for a long (long) time. In the UK this occurs because we have (a) long contracts protecting the trees under the Woodland Carbon Code (50 to 100 years), and (b) a UK law that presumes against felling and requires re-planting if felling is permitted. However, carbon dioxide emissions avoided (as would be the case with restored peatlands) are deemed to be permanent at the point of avoidance. For example: if you decide to Skype a conference call instead of several people travelling to a meeting then, as you can’t go back in time and make the journey, the emissions avoided are permanent. The same logic could be applied to peat: if you re-wet a peatland you are forever avoiding the emissions that would have taken place, and even if you later drain the peat again you can’t go back and emit what was avoided.

The attraction of this line of thought is that it may help to solve one of the potential problems faced by peat carbon projects. With woodland projects it is generally not difficult to get landowners to sign up to long term contracts because new forests offer so many obvious aesthetic, environmental and utility benefits to landowner and neighbours. It occurred to me that a peat carbon project may not need to demand such long-term contracts because its carbon is already stored and the restoration offers immediate permanently avoided losses. This is helpful because, unlike woodland project hosts, the owners of large areas of peat are hard to persuade when it comes to signing contracts that prohibit them from utilizing their land long-term. I believe that shorter contracts - say 10 years’ duration or more – could have a role to play in the future. If shorter contracts lead to an increased willingness to participate by landowners we could see peatland restoration taking place on a much larger scale in the short term - which is when it is most urgently needed. In the future, as landowners gain confidence in the projects and in the market for the arising credits (‘Avoided Carbon Loss Units’?), they may be encouraged to renew their contract.

I hasten to add that these thoughts are exploratory and any initial trial phase of the UK Peatland Code should be founded on the sort of permanence that early corporate 'sponsors' of peat carbon restoration projects would expect, i.e. based on long-term contracts. We'll keep you up to date with work on the draft UK Peatland Carbon Code.

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