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Capturing carbon: How nature-based solutions help achieve net zero goals

October 04, 2021

By Brendan Player and Jeff Tabar, PE, D.CE

Nature-based solutions help combat global climate change and achieve environmental, social, and governance goals

In the fight against climate change, one culprit stands out among all others—greenhouse gas emissions. Around the globe, governments and private organizations have started working towards reducing their carbon footprint by setting goals to achieve net-zero emissions.

A major component of most organizations’ strategic plans to reduce their carbon footprint includes the purchase or acquisition of carbon credits. Carbon credits are essentially a certificate representing the offset of one ton of equivalent carbon dioxide (CO2). So, for an organization to achieve net-zero or become net-positive, it would need to reduce its operational footprint using sustainable technology, supply change management, emissions capture, or other means to obtain carbon credits equal to, or greater than, its remaining annual emissions.

This push towards reducing the carbon in our atmosphere has created a voluntary carbon-credit market that is set to grow rapidly in the coming years. But not all carbon credits are created equal. Some credits represent avoided emissions with minimal impacts to global climate. Others, like those generated by nature-based solutions (NbS), have a far greater impact on reducing the amount carbon in the atmosphere and generate many co-benefits such as improved air and water quality.

To understand the difference among carbon credit options, we must first understand the different carbon-credit markets.

Nature-based solutions actively reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and improve a community’s natural capital.

Carbon credit markets

The market for carbon credits breaks down into two categories: Compensatory and voluntary.

The compensatory market is established by regulations set out by federal and/or international agencies. These generally focus on reaching targets for reducing emissions in a specific country or state. While these credits go through a lengthy verification process before companies can purchase them, there are only a few types of projects that meet the standards for generating offsets—and they often vary across jurisdictions. Some typical project types include avoided conversion of forests and landfill methane capture.

On the other hand, the voluntary market caters to companies that are actively working to reduce their carbon footprint without a regulatory requirement to do so. Under this market, a greater variety of project activities are permitted, opening the door for higher and lower quality credits. “Low-quality” credits are often those generated from projects in other parts of the world that do not reduce carbon concentrations in the atmosphere but instead focus on avoided emissions. Additionally, these projects often do not generate other co-benefits for our ecosystems—such as habitat creation and enhanced coastal resiliency—and are therefore lower in quality.

Organizations operating under the voluntary market have more freedom to create projects that generate meaningful reductions in emissions while pulling carbon from the atmosphere. Projects that generate these credits often involve the use of NbS that focus on restoring or enhancing ecosystem functionality. As a result, these projects improve nature’s ability to capture and store carbon, while also adding natural capital. We refer to credits generated through these projects as “high-quality” for their measurable long-term benefits. These benefits not only help people and the environment, but also support companies in meeting their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals as well as several of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The deteriorated shorelines of the Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge prior to the restoration project.

Climate change, resilience, and natural capital

NbS, such as the restoration or creation of coastal ecosystems (mangroves, tidal salt marshes, and seagrasses), deliver carbon reductions through a process called biological carbon sequestration—the capture and storage of CO2 in vegetation and soils. A growing body of evidence suggests that restoring or creating natural environments helps mitigate climate change more effectively than other types of credits. This makes them a better investment for companies, people, and the planet that supports them.

In addition to capturing carbon, NbS can also address the effects of climate change and build community resilience. For example, the restoration of shorelines, coastal environments, marshes, and wetlands have shown reduced risks of flooding from severe weather in coastal communities. These improvements also increase the natural capital and ecosystem services. This includes enhanced surface water filtration to improve water quality, new habitats for avian, aquatic, and terrestrial species, and increased natural areas to enhance aesthetics and recreation. In turn, this can increase real estate values and human well-being.

The restored shorelines of the Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge.

Demonstrating success

To earn carbon credits for a nature-based solution, you need to demonstrate that the project will remove carbon from the atmosphere. The process involves examining a project site in its current state and evaluating how it will degrade over time with no interventions. We can then create a model that demonstrates how implementing NbS on the site will improve the ecosystem over time. Using the latest scientific literature, we can also estimate how much CO2 this same project will pull out of the atmosphere.

To demonstrate the impact of NbS, we recently evaluated our work on the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge Restoration—a coastal ecosystem restoration in Milton, Delaware. For years, Prime Hook had been hit hard by severe weather events, the worst of which was Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The US Fish and Wildlife Service brought in our team to design the restoration of vital systems and strengthen this critical wildlife habitat to allow it to endure and thrive—even in the event of strong storms. The shoreline and tidal wetland system were restored, and a beach barrier system was constructed to protect the system from future storm damage. By the time the project was completed in 2017, we had supported the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the restoration of 10,000 acres of shoreline and marshes. 

This push towards reducing the carbon in our atmosphere has created a voluntary carbon-credit market that is set to grow rapidly in the coming years.

Through internal research and development on the effectiveness of using coastal ecosystem restoration solutions for CO2 reductions, we reexamined the project to estimate how much carbon it has pulled from the atmosphere annually since completion. The result? The Prime Hook restoration project is estimated to sequester approximately 22,708 tons of CO2 every year. That’s equivalent of emissions from 3,912 US drivers annually.

Through this research, we’re continuing to find new ways to accurately quantify carbon sequestration for the purpose of earning carbon credits. These include investments in research and development to create innovative tools that streamline our services across diverse habitats. The efficacy and return on investment that NbS deliver makes them a prime choice for companies working to meet their net-zero or net-positive goals. 

A look at the Prime Hook Restoration Project and how our team used the natural environment to help our coasts and communities rebound, endure, adapt, and thrive in the face of storms and climate change.

  • Brendan Player

    An environmental planner, Brendan has focused his career on nature-based solutions. He works on water quality, ecology, and biogeochemistry projects, and his research has advanced Stantec’s carbon sequestration services.

    Contact Brendan
  • Jeff Tabar, PE, D.CE

    As a coastal and civil engineer, Jeff brings forth creative solutions to complex engineering problems every day.

    Contact Jeff
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