To encourage the reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the carbon credit trading scheme incentivizes farmers and industrialists to initiate and operate carbon-negative projects, rewarding them with monetarily valuable credits. At the same time, polluting enterprises pay a kind of penalty by purchasing these credits to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions. Bamboo cultivation has earned great attention for its ability to capture and sequester atmospheric carbon, and many now look to it as a way to earn money in the form of carbon credits. But capturing carbon and earning validated carbon credits in accordance with strict international standards are two very different things.
In order to earn carbon credits by growing bamboo, the farm or forest project must undergo a costly and strenuous process of scrutinization and validation in compliance with the Verified Carbon Standard. For every ton of carbon sequestered, the landowner can earn one carbon credit, which they can sell through various channels for approximately $10 to $50 each. Estimates on the number of credits one can earn per acre per year vary widely, but experts agree that the project probably needs to be thousands of acres in size to justify the expensive verification process.
The carbon credit system
The simple principle behind carbon credits is that companies and operations that emit excessive quantities of CO2, exceeding certain levels based on international treaties and local regulations, can purchase credits to offset their emissions. These credits are generated by projects that are carbon negative, in other words, they are removing carbon rather than adding it to the atmosphere.
A single carbon credit represents one metric ton of carbon that is being retained in biomass, lumber substitutes, or alternative fuel sources, and therefore not getting released into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change and global warming.
The Kyoto Protocol introduced the concept of carbon credits in 1992 as a tool to help promote the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. But the carbon trading market really came to life after 2005, when a voluntary carbon standard was established, creating “non-Kyoto” credits, which are still third-party verified but do not satisfy the standards of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. After 2020, the Paris Agreement superseded the Kyoto Protocol, essentially maintaining the same carbon offset system.
Carbon credits effectively give an entity permission to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) or the equivalent amount of other greenhouse gasses (CO2e). Because companies are compelled to acquire these credits in order to comply with emissions standards, their purchase can be interpreted as a kind of fine or a carbon tax, while carbon-negative projects receive a monetary reward. Companies that fail to meet emission mandates, either by purchasing credits or reducing emissions, or both, are subject to fines and legal penalties.
Slightly different from carbon credits, but measured similarly, carbon offsets represent the the reduction or removal of a certain amount of CO2, for example, by producing of a certain amount of sustainable energy to counterbalance the use of fossil fuels. Carbon offsets are exchanged on the over-the-counter voluntary market. Carbon credits legally give their owner the right to emit carbon.
Certification of carbon credits from bamboo
When managed properly, a forest or plantation of bamboo can absorb large amounts of CO2 and trap it in its underground roots and aboveground biomass. This fact is fairly well recognized and understood. But measuring that quantity of CO2 and verifying it through an accredited, third-party agency can be enormously complicated.
In order to be certified, a bamboo grower must prepare a detailed Project Design Document (PDD) , which must clearly outline, among other things, the intention to generate carbon credits. As the project moves forward, meticulous records must be kept regarding every aspect of the land management, planting and harvesting processes.
After two years or more, the verifying team will typically come and examine the land, plants and soil. Auditors will scrutinize the records to see that everything is being done according to the best practices. In addition to the extra record-keeping on the part of the landowner, the verification process can cost around $25,000 per project.
The rule of thumb suggests that the carbon credit earnings do not justify the cost of verification unless you are producing at least 20,000 credits (or capturing 20,000 tons of carbon) per year. For a bamboo grower, this would usually require a minimum of a few thousand well-managed acres.
One of the key criteria in the accreditation process is the notion of additionality. This means proving that the carbon credit scheme is integral to the project, and that the project would not have occurred without it.
In other words, you can’t launch a bamboo plantation for the sole purpose of producing lumber products, for example, and then apply for carbon credits several years down the line, as something of an afterthought. Likewise, someone who has a piece of land with vast acreage of bamboo, which has been there for 10 or 20 years, can’t simply go and claim carbon credits on this already existing carbon sink. One must be conducting additional carbon removal that would not have occurred otherwise.
It’s also important to know that carbon projects can be grouped. That is to say, you can have multiple sites and bundle them as one project, so long as they are conducting the same kinds of carbon removal activities. Grouping has the advantage of making carbon credits available to smaller farmers who would otherwise be put off by the high cost of assessment and the cumbersome preparation of a PDD.
Counting bamboo carbon credits: How many tons per acre?
With the enticement of earning valuable credits for every ton of carbon sequestered, prospective farmers are all asking: How many tons of CO2 per acre of bamboo?
Answers to this question can vary wildly depending on whom you ask. One company in Florida states on its website that their bamboo farms collect 400 tons of carbon per acre per year. If you do the math, that could bring in as much as $20,000 per acre (based on carbon credits selling for $50 each).
Numbers like this could convince farmers across the south to ditch their corn, cotton, citrus and tobacco, and start planting bamboo instead.
Not so fast though. According to a range of projects described by INBAR, including those that have been measured in China, verified carbon sequestration through bamboo forestry looks more like 20-40 tons per acre per year. Earnings of this level make the idea of farming bamboo for carbon credits somewhat less appealing.
In any case, farmers should look at the potential earnings from carbon credits as secondary or supplemental to whatever their primary business strategy is, whether they’re conducting reforestation, manufacturing bamboo floors, or milling bamboo into paper.
Verified bamboo projects
Given the relatively recent interest in bamboo cultivation and the great complexity involved in validating a project for carbon credits, the number of bamboo projects being certified for carbon credits remains very small. As of 2022, EcoPlanet Bamboo‘s reforestation project in Nicaragua is the only bamboo farming or forestry project to be fully certified for carbon credits. In 2021, EcoPlanet received certification for 250,000 tons of CO2e.
According to EcoPlanet COO Camille Rebelo, the company currently has 4 other projects in 3 different countries in the validation pipeline. With these projects, they will continue to remove significant quantities of carbon over the next decades. But she warns individual farmers that in most cases the onerous verification process makes the likelihood of commercializing bamboo with carbon credits is quite low.
A few projects in China claim to be certified, but unlike the methodology approved by Kyoto’s Clean Development Mechanism, China’s domestic certification process is not nearly as rigorous, nor is it internationally recognized. Other bamboo companies in Europe and South America have also expressed an interest in carbon certification, but again, the validation process has thus far proven prohibitive.
Mandatory (CER) vs voluntary (VER) carbon markets
In addition to fully accredited carbon credits, such as those issued by nonprofit entities like Verra, there are also voluntary carbon offsets which do not satisfy the rigid standards of the Kyoto Protocol. Platforms like PuroEarth and Patch.io offer these offsets to companies who voluntarily elect to offset their carbon emissions. VERs (Voluntary Emission Rights) look great in a company’s portfolio, but only CERs (Compliance Emission Rights) enable a company to meet strict, international emission requirements.
The mandatory or compliance market is regulated through international and regional carbon reduction schemes, such as the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) and the California Carbon Market. Meanwhile, programs like Puro Standard, the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), the Gold Standard, and the Climate Action Reserve help to facilitate a reliable market for voluntary offsets.
Voluntary and unofficial carbon offset certificates come in many forms. Non-profit organizations like PuroEarth offer a marketplace for CO2 Removal Certificates (CORCs), verified and issued by third-party entities. In Colombia, Guadua Bamboo rewards those who want to Adopt-a-Bamboo with an estimated carbon offset certificate based on the company’s own calculations.
Companies that voluntarily buy these types of offsets do so for the sake of corporate social responsibility, i.e. to show their support for environmental causes or to meet their own carbon neutrality goals. But VERs and CORCs do not bring businesses into compliance with official mandates set by local governments and international treaties.
In the voluntary market, carbon-capturing projects are free to set their prices as they please, and companies can shop for offsets based on the nature of the project. For example, a tech company in California may wish to diversify its portfolio by supporting wind energy in Iceland, bamboo biochar from Planboo in Sri Lanka, and PEFC-certified timber from Finland. CORCs from a bamboo project in Florida could be more or less appealing than equivalent certificates from another bamboo project in Ethiopia, for any number of reasons.
Bamboo biochar for carbon offsets
Bamboo biochar is an example of a product that captures and stores CO2 but does not qualify for mandatory Kyoto-approved carbon credits. When bamboo undergoes pyrolysis and gets planted in the ground as a soil additive, it has many nutritional benefits for farmers. It also locks in a certain amount of carbon.
Voluntary offsets from biochar are hot on the market, but the regulatory agencies have yet to develop a methodology for measuring this carbon in a way that meets international compliance standards.
Carbon displacement in hard goods
The manufacture of engineered lumber from bamboo is another way to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. Approximately half the weight of a durable bamboo lumber product is stored carbon, such that 1 cubic meter stores about 1.6 tons of carbon over its 30-year lifetime.
Companies engaged in these kinds of activities can issue unofficial certificates as well. But at this time, no official methodologies exist to measure and verify these carbon offsets.
Fuel for thought
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