Monitoring & reporting emissions empowers growers

September 12, 2023
There is a lot of carbon locked up in the growing trees and roots as well as the harvested logs, and even the harvest residue lying in-field.  Emissions generated during the harvesting operation and the burning off of harvest residue will be off-set against the carbon locked up in the wood to calculate the carbon balance.

Plantation owners in South Africa with more than 100 ha of trees in the ground are required to report their carbon emissions on an annual basis, in terms of Greenhouse Gas regulations gazetted in 2017.

This requirement is likely to send a shiver down the spines of tree farmers, who are already burdened with dozens of laws and regulations requiring their attention and compliance. More red tape, more admin … and calculating carbon balance is a daunting prospect as it is not something they learned in forestry school. This is why only a few big plantation owners in South Africa are currently reporting their carbon emissions, while the majority of growers have not yet complied with the GHG reporting regulations.

And don’t for a moment think that you can bury your head in the sand and wait for the carbon reporting thing to go away. It won’t! It is going to become a bigger issue going forward all around the world as greenhouse gas emitters come under increasing pressure. They will be taxed, punished and eventually shut out of international markets.

But fear not! The Sustainable African Forestry Assurance Scheme (SAFAS), in collaboration with the Paper Manufacturers’ Association of South Africa (PAMSA) and the Department of Forestry Fisheries & Environment (DFFE), has unpicked the knot and developed a protocol to make carbon reporting for plantation owners do-able, effective and relatively simple.

“But forestry is sustainable, renewable, it sequesters carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it in the wood, and so why do we now have to jump through these carbon reporting hoops?” I hear you cry.

Exactly! Forestry is located on the positive side of the carbon equation and this is going to become a massive advantage for this sector going forward. But first we have to monitor our emissions, calculate our carbon balance, so that we can access those advantages and reap the full benefits of growing trees. This process is going to become a way of life for foresters.

Sappi mill ...one of the key aims of the SAFAS protocol is to enable wood processors to offset the carbon locked up in third party timber against their carbon tax.

Dave Everard, chair of the SAFAS Council and former Group Environmental Manager at Sappi Forests, has been involved in the development of the SAFAS carbon reporting protocol. He gave a very succinct presentation at the recent SA Institute of Forestry AGM on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of carbon reporting.

Some background: PAMSA approached the SAFAS team a few years back with a request to develop a carbon reporting protocol for forest owners that is accurate and verifiable. PAMSA’s motivation is to enable wood processors (pulp mills, sawmills etc) who are required by law to pay a carbon tax, to offset the carbon stored in the timber they use as raw material. Currently processors can only offset the carbon sequestered in their own timber that they grow themselves on their own farms. As it stands now, mills cannot offset the sequestered carbon contained in third party timber that they buy in, and over which they do not have operational control.

Why? Because there are concerns around the chain-of-custody and how to verify the carbon claims of third party growers. This is a big problem for the processors who must procure timber from outside of their own business to keep their mills running. It’s going to get costly.

It’s also a big problem from the point of view of plantation owners who may experience declining demand for their timber as a consequence.

The SAFAS carbon reporting protocol is therefore designed to not only facilitate accurate, do-able carbon reporting for timber growers, it must also be verifiable so that it can be endorsed by the tax authorities. The first part has been achieved – the protocol is up and running and the system has been tested (and verified) on 20 farms in a pilot study.

According to Dave the SAFAS protocol is currently being presented to Treasury and is awaiting their approval to allow third party timber to be included in the carbon tax calculations of processing mills. The protocol has been developed in close collaboration with DFFE, so Dave is confident that this endorsement will be forthcoming.

Dave described a simple five-step process that growers can follow to achieve carbon reporting compliance.

Step 1
The grower registers on the SAFAS Value-Based Platform (VBP), provides some simple data on their tree growing operations including info about tree species, MAIs, stems per hectare, age distribution and utilisable standing timber. The Carbon reporting tool on the VBP provides estimates of the volume of leaves and branches, litter layer, root volume and harvest residues required for the stock calculations. The grower must also indicate whether they burned their residues, used fertiliser or had any wildfires so that emissions can be calculated.

Step 2
The Platform calculates the carbon stored in the plantation based on the info provided, utilising global carbon ratios (Tier 1), South Africa generic ratios (Tier 2) or compartment specific data if this is available (Tier 3). This calculation determines the carbon stock of the plantation for that year. Note that the carbon stored in harvested timber sold to the mill is not included in the total carbon stock. Carbon stocks less emissions gives you the carbon balance. The carbon balance from the current year less the carbon balance from the previous year indicates whether the plantation has sequestered carbon (carbon positive) or has maintained the stored carbon (carbon neutral) or has lost some carbon (carbon negative).

Step 3
Verification of the carbon stocks and emissions on the plantation during the protocol will be done by SAFAS. Note that DFFE may require some of the submissions to be independently verified by an accredited verifier, but this is post reporting and outside of the protocol. The protocol makes this verification process a simple procedure for the grower.

Step 4
The grower receives a report and signs off if he/she is happy with the calculation.

Step 5
The SAFAS VBP transfers the carbon data to the official carbon reporting platform, SAGERS, and the carbon reporting process is completed.

This process needs to be done annually. Most of the information required for Step 1 is the kind of info that a forestry manager would have recoded in the normal course of business, said Dave. It is required for FSC or PEFC certification purposes anyway.

This process not only enables the forest owner to comply with current carbon reporting regulations, it also serves as a useful management tool for the responsible farmer who wants to reduce GHG emissions going forward.

Once Treasury has endorsed the protocol and the carbon sequestered in third party timber can be verified and offset against mill owners’ carbon tax, the grower’s timber becomes more valuable as a feedstock.

Dave concluded his presentation with the following points:-

• Carbon reporting will become a requirement for forest certification, both FSC and PEFC.
• The forestry sector’s role in the carbon issue should be seen as an advantage.
• Forestry has a legal and socio-economic obligation to report and manage GHG emissions.
• Carbon reporting is likely to become a pre-requisite for accessing many markets, both local and international.
• The SAFAS protocol has been piloted with 20 farms supplying Sappi, Mondi and NCT, and the system works!
• The SAFAS Value Based Platform offers many other benefits to growers, including risk assessments that address sustainability issues as well as a pathway to certification.

Dave Everard … in the field.
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