Shelterbelts’ carbon capture potential touted

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan develop an app to show landowners the economic value of their trees

A new app developed at the University of Saskatchewan is designed to show the economic value of shelterbelts while helping landowners determine the best trees to grow.

Bryan Mood, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Saskatchewan, said trees store a predictable amount of carbon every year that could be worth something.

Saskatchewan has said it will have a carbon offset program available by 2021, and the province’s Prairie Resilience plan highlights investment in carbon sequestration, specifically forest management practices that aren’t recognized by the federal carbon tax.

“As landowners, we’re trying to help you understand how much your trees might be worth before you decide to dig them up,” Mood said during a webinar.

“If you’re planning on getting rid of them, it might not be the best idea if the government of Saskatchewan decides to put a dollar value on shelterbelts that are storing carbon.”

Mood said other benefits of shelterbelts include increased property value because homesteads surrounded by shelterbelts are more likely to sell. They contribute to psychological and physical well-being, and increased crop yield in some situations. Research has shown that canola yields improve with certain shelterbelts.

The internet app that Mood and his team have developed is based on information from 500 to 600 farms in southern Saskatchewan.

The team measured tree diameters, height, width between the trees and tree health. Trees with more space around them will typically store more carbon, he said.

Tree height is directly related to the increased crop yield obtained from the wind protection.

“We also want to know how old the tree is,” Mood said.

“How long does it take for the tree to grow that tall and how long does it take to grow that wide. Using that relationship, we can actually tell you with relative certainty how much carbon the tree has stored in it now, but also how much it likely will store into the future based on its age.”

This information was gathered from different soil zones and plugged into the database, along with information from landowners that included whether they saw value or benefit to the trees.

The result is the Shelterbelt Decision Support System.

It includes research information, a shelterbelt database that includes all the data the team gathered, and a reference site.

It also includes the planning tool that provides best practices for design, how many trees to order and other information.

Mood said a carbon sequestration section shows landowners the economics of new and existing shelterbelts under different carbon tax levels.

“If you’re thinking about destroying it or cutting it down … you can evaluate how much that shelterbelt is ‘worth’ in terms of carbon value,” he said.

The site includes a map of Saskatchewan and allows the user to draw a map on any piece of property. It will indicate the exact dimensions of an area and recommend the best species for the location.

The tool includes the six most popular shelterbelt species: caragana, Scots pine, green ash, hybrid poplar, Manitoba maple and white spruce.

“You can see per species how much carbon they’re storing,” Mood said.

In an example, he showed that a one kilometre white spruce row planted in 2020 would store 3.5 tonnes of carbon in 2039.

“If you do the math, it’s equivalent to, in that year, $75, and that’s just that one year,” he said, using the current $20 per tonne tax.

Green ash planted this year would store 1.5 tonnes of carbon or $31 worth in 2039.

The value would obviously increase as the trees grow and store more carbon, and the tax rises, Mood said.

In an interview, Mood said people don’t recognize the importance of shelterbelts as they relate to carbon and climate change.

Shelterbelts can help fulfill the federal government pledge to plant two billion trees and alleviate concerns about water shortages by capturing snow in fields.

Mood recognizes that farm equipment size has caused many producers to rip trees out. However, if they actually looked at the economic value of yields on either side of the shelterbelt, and were paid for the carbon, they might reconsider.

“That can put you over the edge and you’re actually making money by having shelterbelts, or you have a net gain,” he said.

Mood added the site will include more local knowledge as landowners pass that on. For example, Manitoba maples can become like weeds in the area around Prince Albert.

“Now that PFRA (the former tree nursery at Indian Head) has been shut down, a lot of landowners need to buy their trees and if they’re buying the wrong kind of trees it’s a waste of money,” he said.

That said, caragana grows everywhere in Saskatchewan and is always a good choice for a field shelterbelt.

“If you’re looking for something to grow tall, really fast as a windbreak, a hybrid poplar is a really good choice,” Mood said.

“They go really high but they die after 40 to 50 years, and tend to be blown over by the wind, too. You have to pick and choose what you actually want out of your shelterbelt.”

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