This article is reproduced from the SGA quarterly member magazine, Scottish Gamekeeper (Winter edition).
Guest writer Victor Clements tackles the cloudy subject of carbon credits, answering a reader letter from the Autumn edition. (Images by Victor Clements).
I was interested in the letter you published in the Autumn 2022 edition of your magazine from Ruairidh Ormiston in which he questions why rural communities cannot benefit more from carbon trading payments.
As a woodland advisor, I should be enthusiastic about carbon trading myself, but I am not.
Like Ruairidh, I don’t really know how it works, I just can’t see it, and that ultimately means that I cannot advise. Facts and figures around carbon trading are asserted with such authority by those in the know that you almost feel embarrassed to ask questions that might expose your ignorance, and surprisingly few people do ask questions about it.
Given the amount of money that is being traded and the potential consequences for rural communities, there is something about this that is not quite right.
Two articles in recent years have started to inform my own thinking on this.
One was published in the Royal Scottish Forestry Society magazine in which a Finnish academic (1) claimed that all woodland based carbon schemes in Europe were at least double claimed, and sometimes more than that.
The second was an article quoted extensively by Friggens et al (2) who, after extensive study in Scotland, concluded that native woodland planted on carbon rich soils did not show a positive carbon balance for at least 40 years.
What was being gained above soil was being lost below the surface. There are lots of good reasons for planting trees, but mitigating against carbon losses may not be one of them.
The third part of my own education on this was the realisation of how the value in carbon credits is created, and this is important.
The carbon in your soils only has a value if someone can put it against their current pollution somewhere else, and claim that this deals with the problem that this would otherwise give them.
They are purchasing a licence to pollute, and your carbon is allowing them to do that.
Almost certainly, the cost of this pollution licence is much less than the cost that would be incurred if they actually had to deal with the problem at source.
So, despite the outwardly high cost, carbon credits are good value for those purchasing them. But it could be argued that this is ‘dirty money’.
If you are a principled sort of person who wouldn’t invest in oil exploration or arms manufacturers, then you should probably be having second thoughts about this as well.
If others didn’t want to buy your stored carbon for their own selfish reasons, it would have no value at all. Of course, this is the same with all products. That cow standing in your field only has a value if you sell it, or if you can sell something that it produces. It does have a paper value to you, and that may well be useful, but what happens if you transfer that paper value to someone else?
If you are farming or managing land in Scotland, and looking after your soils, then, inevitably, you will probably be storing up carbon already, especially if you are managing moorland.
If someone buys your carbon rights, then they are claiming credit for what you are doing, but if you have been doing the right thing already, as most people are, what has been gained? Technically, nothing.
It just becomes an accounting exercise. There is no extra carbon absorbed to mitigate against climate change.
So, the pressure is to say that your land is in poor condition, that the external investment was required to turn it around, and now you are absorbing carbon like there was no tomorrow.
Your new partner will need to demonstrate that something has changed, and the easiest way to do this is to take sheep or deer away. They will not be interested in production. Making the accounts look right is much more important.
There is only a value in carbon credits if you are prepared to sell out to someone else. They will sign you up for 50 or 100 years if they can, and it doesn’t matter how big your farm or estate is, because almost certainly, they will be much bigger.
If there is a dispute further down the line, chances are they will win. They will defend their interest in the courts, and there will be little sentiment about it. The scary bit is that the definition of what is acceptable management may change over the years, in the way that rules surrounding Quality Assurance schemes might change.
So, your children may then be legally obliged to do things never anticipated at the outset by you. Any big company will instruct their lawyers to have agreements as flexible as possible if they are to be future-proofed against changing science, fashion, or political narrative.
There isn’t a way for local communities to benefit from all this unless you are prepared to sell out and have this potentially ruthless, sleeping partner. Is all this really a bonanza?
Bonanza or no?
Two years ago, it seemed like almost every big estate in Scotland might be cashing in their carbon credits.
Huge woodland planting schemes were being discussed, and the papers carried countless high profile examples of the kind of things going on.
As someone who does deer plans for a living, I get to hear about many of them, but the interesting thing is that very few of them have been progressed.
I think there are two factors at play here.
One is that these projects are still dependent on publicly funded schemes, and that money is still limited. The mechanics of applications is also complicated and frustrating. Allied to this, the apparent bottomless pit of money has caused many suppliers and advisors to put their prices up, so costs have increased, but the public grants have not.
This means that unless you are prepared to chase carbon credits, the viability of many schemes has deteriorated, and proposals that might have went forwards a few years ago will not go forwards now because they are likely to show a loss.
The other factor is that people have been asking more questions about double accounting, and an uneasiness has set in around this. The gold rush appears to have slowed at the moment. If you look at the woodland creation figures in Scotland, they are not going up quickly as many people think. The peak tree planting year was four years ago, and levels have been coming down since. They are not going up at all. This might not be your perception, but it is true.
From the graph you see that, (1) Tree planting levels in Scotland are only a fraction of what they were in the 1970’s and 80’s, (2) Figures at the moment are coming down, not going up, with the peak of 11,212 ha being in 2019. For context, this was the figure being achieved in 2001 at the beginning of devolution. The annual targets in Scotland which we have had since 2006 have never been achieved.
At the moment, the Scottish Government will invest money in woodland creation and peatland restoration schemes, do the carbon calculations, and put this against emissions elsewhere by Scotland plc.
There is nothing wrong with that.
If the farmer is environmentally aware, he may decide that he wants to put his new area of trees against the carbon released by his cows, for example, even though ScotGov have already put his area of woodland against wider emissions, which may not include his cows.
In carbon terms, his woodland can then be accounted for twice. If he has income from carbon credits, as woodland advisors will suggest to him, then someone else, perhaps on the other side of the world, will be setting that woodland against their cement works or their open cast mine or whatever.
Your wood might be getting accounted for three times, and this is possible because it isn’t easy to keep track of who is doing what. It is no coincidence that a lot of land in Scotland has increased in value by three times.
It is serving a purpose for a lot of different people. Governments recognise the problem, and are taking action to close the loopholes, but few can ensure transparency on the international scale that money is exchanging hands at.
The very simply question, ‘Who is actually paying for this?’ causes people to stop and think, and consider if all this is sustainable or real at all.
At least in this country, certain aspects of carbon trading are transparent, but this is not the case elsewhere. People can claim almost anything, and how are we to know for sure?
Elsewhere in your magazine, you have a small article setting out how deer supposedly produce less ‘life cycle’ emissions than beef or lamb.
A lamb supposedly produces 24,682 kg or nearly 25 tonnes of Co2 in a life cycle, which might just be 5-6 months or so.
Now, grass is about 80% water, and the carbon emitted by a lamb has to come from the dry matter within its feed. So, the lamb would need to eat 25 x 5= 125 tonnes of grass to ingest the necessary carbon that it was then to emit.
In fact, as the dry matter content of grass is only 50% carbon, it would need to eat 250 tonnes of grass to emit that much Co2. Clever people will of course notice that the weight of oxygen will also be included, but that came from the air to start with.
The actual carbon will be much less than the 25 tonnes, but even so, does anyone believe that a lamb is capable of eating so much grass, and why does a lamb emit nearly 25 tonnes in a life cycle, and beef cattle only emit 20 tonnes, despite being much bigger, and usually living longer, as well as farting a lot more?
We need to challenge the figures being given to us, and have the confidence to do so.
This will involve us asking the obvious questions that we fear may leaves us looking stupid, but which are actually very necessary for properly understanding all this. Simple questions are the best ones. This is what we all need to do now.
All this reminds me of the first time I was asked to go and advise someone on a tree planting project, as a student with a summer job with the Central Scotland Countryside Trust in Shotts in Lanarkshire in the 1980s.
They had had a query about planting trees from a businessman. When I went to see him, he had purchased a farm, and his money making wheeze was to use bulldozers to completely strip his entire topsoil resource, sell this to landscapers in housing schemes in Glasgow, and plant low grade woodland on the sub soil underneath, which he had calculated would still grow alder and willow.
As a youth with high principles, I walked away in disgust!
But this is what carbon trading is. Effectively, you are selling your soil for landscaping or green washing purposes.
It might not be moving anywhere, but someone is going to dictate to you and your heirs and successors how it is to be used for maybe a hundred years to come. There is nothing in this for any sensible rural community in Scotland at the moment if you want to maintain a stake in your own land.
Greenwashing seems a fair term, it is up to others to decide whether it is worse than that.
A much better way to progress would be for government to acknowledge that this carbon sink in our soils exists now, and that much or probably most of it is already in good condition.
They can put a notional value on that public good that is being delivered, and then invest in rural communities to safeguard it.
They could invite private investment to help make it happen, but there needs to be a clear separation between rural communities and those whose motivations for getting involved may not be good.
At the moment, they are not buying carbon credits or land in the public interest, but very much in their own private interest, and we all need to recognise that when money is being waved in our faces.
There are times when you should look a gift horse in the mouth because, if it turns out to be no good, then it is you that has to stand the cost of sorting it out afterwards. There is no such thing as free money.