Companies and individuals benefit from carbon credit projects in the park, but some say the practice is deceptive.
By Chloe Bennett
Adirondack trees have a long history of providing income for forest industries. Before the formation of the Adirondack Park Agency, loggers bought and harvested expansive lots in the park, yielding huge profits for timber companies and significant taxes for the state. The practice has faded due to regulations, although tree-cutting continues on some lands.
Now, wood-product companies and landowners can benefit from an emerging forest operation: Carbon offset projects.
The North Country offers forest-rich lands for owners willing to protect them and for companies looking to achieve a net-zero status or shrink their so-called carbon footprint.
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Analysis of public documents by the Adirondack Explorer found that more than 450,000 acres of land in the North Country are used for carbon offset projects. Many of them were brokered by Finite Carbon, a large presence in the California compliance market, regulated by the California Air Resources Board.
Smaller tracts are enrolled in the voluntary market, which does not have government oversight. One such project was grounded in Brandreth Park, a family-owned, 9,000-acre plot west of Long Lake.
In 2022, the Brandreth Park Association entered a contract with carbon offset broker NCX. The two entities agreed that Brandreth Park would continue to conserve its carbon-storing trees for one year, after which NCX would pay the landowners for contributions toward neutralizing greenhouse gas emissions. That sum, totaling around $19,000, was put toward infrastructure maintenance and its investment fund, Chris Potter, Brandreth Park Association Council president said.
According to Potter, the program played as expected and the council hoped to renew the contract for another year. At first, he said, it looked like the partnership would continue. But before the plan was realized, the company told Potter it didn’t have an adequate stock of companies buying carbon credits to re-enroll with Brandreth.
Potter said Brandreth is interested in another offset project, but it’s standing by for now.
“We’re taking a wait-and-see attitude,” he said.
NCX is among many purveyors of carbon offset projects aimed at neutralizing emissions. But the projects have different interpretations for different people. For some, it’s a necessary practice that will push net-zero emission goals forward. By paying landowners to protect their forests, which pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by photosynthesis, companies can count the tons of carbon stored against their emissions.
To others, it’s a deceptive practice that allows companies to continue polluting the atmosphere while promoting themselves as “green.”
In New York, carbon offset projects have a share in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which calls for a net-zero emission status of 1990 levels by 2050. The law allows for 15% of its goal to be accounted for by carbon-offset projects.
“Rather than having to stop everything, retool and then start over where we’re not emitting as much CO2, we’ll keep doing some of the stuff that we do now, and we’ll try and do more of the things that we know how to do to help protect the atmosphere,” Grayson Badgley, a research scientist at nonprofit CarbonPlan, said, explaining the concept. “The net effect on the atmosphere is supposed to be better than it would be without offsetting emissions,” he said.
For land to be certified by voluntary and regulated markets, it must meet criteria including the storage of additional carbon that wouldn’t exist without the project, and a level of permanence set by a contract’s duration. In California, the projects are required to continue for at least 100 years.
Unlike many projects in the Adirondacks, carbon offsets on private land are not formally overseen by the Department of Environmental Conservation or the Adirondack Park Agency. Registries such as nonprofit Verra certify the projects based on their own standards for buyers.
NCX, the offset company that worked with Brandreth, did not receive certification from Verra because of its methods for carbon accounting. The strategy received critical public comments, including some from CarbonPlan, leading Verra to postpone a decision to certify the methodology and NCX to cease offset project sales.
CarbonPlan wrote that the approach, called ton-year accounting, lacked a level of permanence because of its short duration. “Fundamentally, ton-year accounting is physically inconsistent with net-zero climate goals that seek to stabilize planetary temperatures,” the researchers wrote to Verra in April 2022.
But the safety of a short contract was part of the attraction for Brandreth landowners.
Brandreth Park has a longstanding tradition of land stewardship, from prohibiting motorboats on its lakes to protecting its environment, and began considering carbon offsets several years ago. The council searched for programs and found some that lasted decades. “But some of these seemed rather onerous with respect to the oversight of the program, the number of folks that would be in, monitoring over the years, and just frankly, the long-term nature of it,” Potter said. “It’s a long-term commitment that was hard for us to make.”
Climate solution or placeholder?
In the Adirondacks, strict ecological protections shelter the forests, cleansing air polluted by industrialization elsewhere. Although much of the park’s six million acres are state-owned and will remain wild, more than half of the land is private and eligible for development. Landowners who wish to enroll their property in carbon offsets can do so with the right vendor and paperwork. But not all projects are equal in their climate contributions, experts say.
New Hampshire-based Lyme Timber Co. owns more than 1 million acres of land in the U.S., including about 240,000 acres in the Adirondacks. Lyme has considered enrolling its North Country forests in carbon offsets, but is holding off for now.
“We ask ourselves honestly: ‘What is the climate benefit, is there really true additionality here?’” Sean Ross, director of forestry operations, said. “Are we just going to be selling credits from trees that maybe we wouldn’t have cut anyway?”
The value of carbon credits compared with tree harvest was another deciding factor, Ross said. The price of one carbon credit, meant to represent one ton of carbon dioxide, changes over time and by market. One credit can range from a few dollars to more than $50. On Aug. 2, the price of a carbon credit in the California compliance market was $29. A voluntary credit was worth $1.90.
This article appeared in the current issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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Last October, Lyme Chief Executive Officer Jim Hourdequin criticized many carbon offset projects, partly because of their insignificant impact on climate change.
“Our assessment is that many forest carbon offset projects in the U.S. have probably delivered relatively little carbon storage and climate benefit,” Hourdequin said during a Yale Forest Forum.
The question of additionality, a measurement of added carbon storage that wouldn’t have existed without an offset agreement, is a concerning one for some scientists and landowners. Standards set by voluntary market registries that certify the projects can lead to an overestimation of carbon storage, said Charles Canham, a senior scientist emeritus with the Cary Institute in Millbrook and member of the Adirondack Land Trust board.
“The problem is that the protocols themselves are fundamentally flawed,” Canham said. “It’s not that people are cheating and not following the protocols. It’s that people are, in fact, following the protocols, but the protocols lead to gross exaggeration.”
Whether or not profit is generated, forest carbon storage remains an effective climate solution, scientists say. Land sinks, made of forests, wetlands and grasslands, currently absorb around 24% of human-caused emissions released into the atmosphere each year, writes climate solution organization Project Drawdown. Carbon stored in trees will stay for generations until the land is degraded by fire or other disturbances.
But allowing emitters to continue as usual instead of strictly slashing their pollution is not an adequate climate solution, Mary Booth, founder and director of Partnership for Policy Integrity, said. Businesses and lawmakers should focus on curtailing energy use and expanding forests for the health of the planet, she said.
“We need to stop the emissions and grow the sink, not offset one with the other,” Booth said.
Oversight of the voluntary carbon offset market could be coming, according to the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The agency recently held discussions intended to inform possible guidance, interpretations or policy statements related to the voluntary market. In the meantime, parties involved in carbon markets are continuing to trade land conservation for cash. Researchers such as CarbonPlan’s Badgley are measuring the impacts as climate change heats up the planet.
“I think there’s more and more tension about, ‘Wait a minute, are we making this trade correctly?” Badgley said. “And is this truly offsetting? Or is it just a little bit better than the status quo but we still need to get our act together, where we actively continue to make deep cuts to our number of emissions?”