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Forest Carbon Offsets: How Do They Work?

Carbon offsets simply are not an answer to the ever-increasing carbon output by countries. A much more integrated strategy with private sector cooperation is needed.

What are carbon offsets?

Forest carbon offsets have grown increasingly popular in recent years as companies and their customers have shown greater interest in supporting global climate action.  At first glance, forest carbon offsets seem like a foolproof way to counterbalance one’s carbon emissions.  Carbon offsetting programs allow for the purchase of carbon credits in which one credit is equivalent to one metric ton of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.  Emitters purchase carbon credits equivalent to the amount of carbon they are responsible for producing.  Then, the carbon offsetting programs ensure that trees are then planted, helping to improve damaged ecosystems through reforestation.  Alternatively, efforts are put towards avoidance projects, in which greenhouse gases that would have been released into the atmosphere are prevented from being emitted.  

What Is Carbon Offsetting And How Does It Work?
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Theoretically, these two options, avoidance projects and reforesting attempts, would lead to a lower net amount of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere, and a semblance of balance would be restored.

In practice:

All that seems well and good, right?  It would be, if it worked.  Unfortunately, upon closer examination, most carbon offsetting programs are not the convenient little win-win situations we would like them to be.  

The Guardian recently conducted an investigation and discovered that almost 90% of rainforest offset credits provided by Verra, the world’s leading provider of carbon offsets, are not only worthless, but may actually increase global heating.  Through the analysis of academic studies of Verra’s rainforest projects, staff at The Guardian, along with reporters from Die Zeit, a Hamburg-based weekly newspaper, and SourceMaterial, a non-profit that produces investigative journalism, have come to the conclusion that Verra is likely using “phantom credits”; the credits that Verra has been issuing to clients who hope to offset their carbon emissions are false, incorrectly representing carbon reduction.  This misrepresentation has been happening through the overstatement of both threat to the forests Verra purports to protect as well as the impact their projects have on those forests.

Verra, of course, refuted the findings of The Guardian’, questioning the methodology of the investigation. However, industry professionals, such as Barbara Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, believe in the validity of the study.  She believes that “We need an alternative process. The offset market is broken”.

The investigation’s unfortunate results aside, let’s pretend for a moment that carbon offsetting programs did what they claim to do.  At their best, they allow companies to continue with business as usual, as long as they supplement their greenhouse gas emissions with carbon offsets.  Though there are often limitations to the number of carbon credits that can be purchased by emitters, at their core, these offsets just provide companies with a “license to pollute”.  They do nothing to challenge the business strategies that have led to the acceleration of the climate crisis, nor do they inspire a change in the relationship we have with the world around us; if we want to adequately protect the planet’s finite resources, we can’t continue looking at the complex systems that surround us through such a transactional lens. Keeping score in this manner, tit for tat, rather than taking a more holistic approach, is not how we will achieve meaningful climate action.  

BC takes steps forward

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In British Columbia, a more integrated strategy is being taken to try and protect the province’s forests.  In 2022, the provincial Ministry of Forests announced a partnership with First Nations to prioritize ecosystem health and community resiliency in BC forests.  This partnership furthers the spirit of the federal Impact Assessment Act, passed in 2019, which expands Indigenous consultation during the assessment of major projects proposed on federal lands.  The Province and First Nations are focusing on the deferral of old growth logging through the development of an Old Growth Strategic Action Plan. Old growth trees (at least 140 years old in the Interior and 250 years on the coast) are critically important to protect; ensuring their preservation is a step in the right direction for British Columbia.

Here at Ceco, we are excited by this move by the BC Ministry of Forests and understand that private sector cooperation is essential in working towards a sustainable future.  We acknowledge that band aid solutions like carbon offsets are not feasible, long-term models. And are thrilled to provide a tool that will guide both public and private entities in their journeys toward lowering their carbon emissions.  If longevity is the goal, actionable changes thimust be made – and with our geospatial monitoring approach, we can help.

Shira Sanghvi
Verified writer

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