Forest-Based Carbon Offsets May Not Be The Climate Solution We Thought

by | Jul 21, 2023 | Environment

Home » Environment » Forest-Based Carbon Offsets May Not Be The Climate Solution We Thought

Forest-based carbon offsets, also known as forest carbon credits or forest carbon offsets, are a mechanism used to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by investing in or supporting projects that protect, restore, or sustainably manage forests. These projects aim to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by enhancing forest carbon stocks or preventing deforestation and forest degradation.

The concept behind forest-based carbon offsets is that forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing and storing CO2 from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. By conserving existing forests or restoring degraded areas, the amount of carbon stored in trees and soil can be increased, effectively offsetting emissions from other sources. Forest carbon offset projects often involve activities such as reforestation, afforestation, improved forest management, and the avoidance of deforestation.

How Do Forest-Based Carbon Offsets Work?

Carbon offsets balance a company’s carbon emissions by paying to conserve trees that absorb carbon dioxide from the air. The absorbed carbon dioxide can subsequently be claimed as an offset to minimize the company’s net environmental impact. Trees take CO2 from the atmosphere and use it to create bulk, effectively storing the carbon in their wood for the rest of the tree’s life.

Landowners in California can obtain carbon credits if they keep carbon stocks above a certain “baseline” level. Third-party verifiers assist landowners by manually measuring a sample of trees. So far, this technique has only measured carbon levels relative to a baseline and has not taken advantage of the upcoming satellite technologies investigated.

Forest owners can sell carbon credits to commercial corporations to save trees that would otherwise be taken down. For example, enormous oil and gas industries employ offsets to achieve up to 8% of their state-mandated emissions reductions. However, new satellite data confirms what scientists have believed for years: forest offsets may not be doing anything to help the climate.

Hazards of Employing Forest-Based Carbon Offsets To Offset Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Forests in the United States contribute to preventing climate change by storing around 15 billion metric tonnes of carbon in the leaves, trunks, and limbs of trees. However, climate change makes their future extremely precarious. Rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere aid tree growth while simultaneously exacerbating natural calamities connected with rising temperatures, such as wildfires. Some scientific models predict that American forests will store more carbon over the next several decades, while others expect more regional variability or overall carbon storage losses. The findings point to forest-based carbon offsets as a climate risk. These offsets are programs such as tree planting or forest conservation that polluters pay for when they cannot reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

In theory, carbon-storing forest offsets can offset some of the remaining carbon emissions from polluting industries and governments, but they sometimes fail to deliver. According to one of the models examined in the new study, wildfires and disease might contribute to carbon losses in around 1.73 million acres of forests currently allocated to offset ongoing greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century.

Researchers have various tools to forecast what will happen to forests over time. Some scientists use complicated ecosystem dynamics, such as carbon and water transport, to predict whether trees will grow or die more over time. Others look at large databases of current forests’ tree species, size, and health, while still, others utilize machine learning to predict what would happen to the “climate niches” that tree-like.

Analysis of the Amerian Forest’s Future

Anderegg’s study compared three approaches to the future of American forests, focusing solely on the carbon stored in above-ground biomass such as leaves and tree trunks apart from trees’ roots and forest soil. The first method, which is based on ecosystem dynamics and poorly modelled the effect of wildfires, predicted that American forests will store 45% more carbon by 2100. A second model based on machine learning predicted that US forests would store 4% less carbon over the same period. Based on data from around 100,000 long-term forest monitoring plots around the US, a third came in somewhere in the centre. It anticipated that forests in the eastern United States would store more carbon but that this expansion would be offset mainly by dead trees in the wildfire-ravaged West.

Since it is based on so much on-the-ground data for trees in the United States, the third model is likely the most reliable. However, the study’s findings highlight the difficulty of forecasting forest growth and decrease.

This is especially important for forest-based carbon offsets, which function only if the carbon is locked up for a long time – ideally, centuries. Anderegg’s research demonstrates how difficult it is to guarantee such a long time frame: The middle-ground model predicted that by the end of the century, 36% of the forest area designated as offsets Wildfires, illness, and other climate-related pressures would cause California Air Resources Board to lose carbon. The machine learning algorithm predicted that carbon storage would diminish for three-quarters of the regulator’s offset schemes by 2100.

What Does High-Quality, Effective Forest Carbon Offset Entail?

Forest carbon offsets that are well-designed and well-implemented can provide incentives to reduce deforestation and forest degradation, improve forest governance, and increase support for the rights of Indigenous peoples and local populations, particularly women. The following are critical components for forest-based solutions:

1. To conserve biodiversity and ecological services, entire – and mostly intact – forests must be protected. Indigenous peoples’ territories play an essential role in this, as they have proven to be very effective at preserving trees.

2. Better management of production forests and plantations to offer much-needed resources that will allow the transition from a fossil-fuel-based to a bio-based economy by finding alternatives for products with a high carbon footprint, such as cement and steel.

3. Increasing the number of trees in agricultural fields through various agroforestry systems and giving residents better financial and social incentives.

4. Restoring our planet’s large amount of degraded land to increase ecosystem-based benefits. Like other nature-based solutions, this must always be done in collaboration with local communities in a locally relevant manner.

5. Ensuring Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ engagement, as well as appropriate benefit-sharing systems

Each component could be part of a program that provides carbon offsets from forests or trees. At the same time, they represent a better approach to care for our land, resulting in carbon storage and many other advantages.


Forests and trees play critical roles in mitigating and adjusting to the consequences of climate change. They effectively store carbon, support a vast range of plant and animal species, and help regulate the Earth’s climate by releasing water vapour and absorbing sunlight. Forests also supply resources such as timber and non-timber items, preventing soil erosion and flooding. When woods are integrated into agricultural regions, they assist farmers in boosting biodiversity while also mitigating the effects of climate change. As a result, they have gained popularity as a carbon-offsetting approach.

A high-quality carbon offset scheme possesses several critical characteristics. It must calculate its greenhouse gas emissions and reductions precisely. A credible offset standard should certify the project. Furthermore, the offset should not hurt local populations or the environment, ensuring that social safeguards and biodiversity values are upheld.

Also Read: Carbon Pollution Standards: EPA’S Key To Cut Emissions


  • Dr. Emily Greenfield

    Dr. Emily Greenfield is a highly accomplished environmentalist with over 30 years of experience in writing, reviewing, and publishing content on various environmental topics. Hailing from the United States, she has dedicated her career to raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable practices.

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