This article is a brief description of carbon offsetting through reforestation and forest protection, which are nature-based projects related to terrestrial forests. It is for someone intending to offset their carbon footprint, providing the basics for how these projects achieve carbon offsetting, what carbon accreditation auditors look at when evaluating them, and issues commonly associated with them.
For preparatory reading, and links to other articles in this Carbon Offsetting series:
- Carbon Offsetting & Net Zero Emissions
- Reforestation & Afforestation Carbon Offsetting Projects
- Which forestry projects are also carbon offsetting projects?
- If a forest burns down, what happens to the carbon credits?
- Further reading:
Carbon Offsetting & Net Zero Emissions
Since the global warming phenomenon was first confirmed in the 1990s, the need to scale back greenhouse gas emissions has been known.
Greenhouse gases have increased at an unprecedented rate in planetary history, driven by mankind’s burning of fossil fuels within a relatively short period of time. The increased heat trapped by the added greenhouse gases have begun to change the balance of climate systems, some of which lead to the release of even more greenhouse gases (e.g. forest fires, permafrost melts).
In 2015, the Paris Agreement saw the nations of the world agree that global warming needs to be kept below 2 degrees above pre-industrial global temperatures (aiming for no more than 1.5 degrees to avert the worst effects of climate change to vulnerable nations).
Net zero carbon emissions is not about that.
You may notice a growing number of companies pledging to be ‘net zero’ or have ‘net neutral’ carbon emissions. Invariably this will involve changing the way their businesses operate so that they emit less carbon. And, if there are any carbon emissions left over, they have to be offset.
However, without needing to be particularly good in math, you would realise that even if all businesses are net neutral from now on, we would still not be in carbon balance. The greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere now will continue to heat the earth, and climate change that is already underway will release other greenhouse gases from natural reserves.
So this is why I say upfront that going net zero is not about solving climate change. Additional things have to be done over and above that. Going net zero is about not making the problem worse, so that it isn’t harder and harder to solve.
Carbon offsetting verification standards
Carbon projects rely on carbon accounting to qualify as carbon offsetting. (Jargon cheat sheet article link is at the top). Like financial accounting, you need audits to make sure the carbon accounting is honest. Unlike financial accounting, which has been around for longer, carbon accounting is still being tweaked, since is it still a relatively new discipline. That this is still going on, does not mean that carbon accounting isn’t trustworthy, or that it isn’t essential.
Carbon projects may be fully dedicated to a company intending to meet net neutral targets (e.g. Qantas’ reforestation project), or generate credits which can be bought by individuals, like you and I. The latter are usually managed by carbon offsetting service providers, such as Terrapass.
We can rely on audits carried out by the service providers to be assured that projects are managed to standards submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Examples include the Gold Standard, and the Verified Carbon Standard.
Reforestation & Afforestation Carbon Offsetting Projects
OK, with the context out of the way, now on to the project type. This article will cover reforestation and afforestation projects which qualify for carbon credit funding. I will also touch a little bit on forest protection projects. (Yes, they’re not the same).
What is the difference between reforestation & afforestation?
There are two kinds of tree planting efforts: reforestation and afforestation. Reforestation is re-planting trees on forest land. For example, Europe is replanting forests that it lost during its Industrial Age.
Afforestation, on the other hand, is planting trees on land which had a different original ecosystem (as far as we know). An example is China’s ‘Great Green Wall’ in Inner Mongolia, where forests replaced desert.
Why is it important to make the distinction? It boils down to how good an ecologist you need to be.
Reforestation is more straightforward; you know the land used to be forest. Therefore, you know what kind of forest would be appropriate for the local conditions. You know that the natural cycles are favourable, if you would simply abandon the human uses of the land, and maybe help it along a little bit.
Afforestation requires more design. This is because you’re intending to shift one ecosystem into another. Therefore, you need to study in advance what the water cycle is like, the local seasons, soil etc. This is so that you can select the right trees to plant, as well as avoid causing unintended problems, such as groundwater depletion.
How do reforestation & afforestation combat climate change?
Reforestation and afforestation are essential in combating climate change, because they are among the few ways we know of to absorb carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. Remember, even if everything becomes carbon neutral tomorrow, climate change will continue because of the greenhouse gases we have already released.
Like all plants, trees absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. The important bit about forests, is carbon sequestration. Trees are long-lived, and convert the carbon dioxide into carbon in wood. The longer the tree survives, the longer the carbon stays out of the atmosphere. The more trees you’ve got, the more carbon you can remove and store. Reforestation alone could remove 2.7 million metric tonnes of CO2e per year.
Additionally, compared to artificial methods to remove carbon dioxide (e.g. CCS), reforestation is cheaper. It also helps to alleviate the Biodiversity Crisis through restoring habitat. The Biodiversity Crisis is a different problem from climate change. However, mitigating it makes us better able to adapt to unavoidable climate change, a likely outcome for many.
If you imagine that humanity is on a runaway train, climate action is about slowing down the train. Renewing biodiversity is about making sure you still have a long, long track in front of the train – or at least stop sabotaging the tracks!
That said, there are limits to the potential of reforestation to combat climate change. As forest ecosystems reach maturity, the amount of carbon dioxide it absorbs becomes balanced with the amount it releases through tree death and decay. At this point, it is not a carbon sink anymore. It’s just maintaining the storage of carbon. In fact, even if we save all the forests, and reforest remaining suitable land, it’s actually not enough to meet the Paris Agreement target of 2.0 degrees C.
Which forestry projects are also carbon offsetting projects?
In general, any kind of reforestation project probably has a positive outcome. Aside from carbon capture, there are biodiversity benefits, natural resource benefits, groundwater restoration, and many more things we value from forests.
However, even though all forestry projects contribute to carbon removal, qualifying for carbon credits involves meeting specific conditions. This is because a carbon offsetting project gets to earn carbon credits. So you have to be able to say how much carbon was removed – and stayed removed – by that forest in that year.
Therefore, these need to be projects in countries where you’re fairly sure that the forest will be relatively permanent. Otherwise, buyers would be less willing to buy the carbon credits. Loss of the forest would invalidate the credits, and could mean liability to the buyer in a mature carbon trading system.
Some environmentalists see this as a weakness of counting forests for carbon offsetting projects. I think they are short-sighted. Their error is in assuming that the forest will stay as it is. But in many parts of the world, the trend is deforestation. In fact, the third-party verification could be an additional and potentially important protection. It could even be stronger than having a forest reserve classification. I’m not kidding.
In addition, in order to balance the carbon budget globally, the amount of carbon absorbed, stored, or dissipated by the various natural sinks such as forests, have to be counted anyway. After all, if fires or disease takes out a forest somewhere, we all have to get to net zero or net positive emissions faster, to make up for it. Signing up forests into a carbon program helps every country obtain the knowledge required to do the basic accounting.
What is the difference between reforestation & forest protection?
By now, you can probably work out the difference between reforestation and forest protection. Forest protection is not a tree planting project. Rather, it is about preventing existing forest from being cut down in the first place.
Reforestation and afforestation are more straightforward. The land isn’t currently forest; the project is about growing forest on it. On the other hand, preventing deforestation has a different baseline, in ecological terms as well as economic terms.
Are projects preventing deforestation part of carbon offsetting?
Yes, but it’s under REDD+. To understand why REDD+ exists, you need to understand the earliest debates on environmental justice.
Natural ecosystems face a lot of land conversion pressure in less industrialised countries. If developing countries develop along the same path taken by Europe and North America, more forest and other resources have to be harvested, before restoring it as Europe is doing.
On the other hand, if we don’t, we face climate change without the technology base to adapt to it. This is why forest protection in developing countries is not a simple matter of just gazetting it, like in developed countries.
Unfortunately, the world cannot afford to give us that development path. Global warming is already well underway; all of our forests must remain intact to save life on earth. Simply leaving our forests alone contributes 3,124 million metric tonnes of CO2e per year. Improving its management is worth an additional 820 million metric tonnes per year. It blows the full potential of reforestation out of the water.
Because of this context, these projects are typically in developing countries. REDD+ stands for ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries‘. The framework (the Warsaw Framework) came about after COP19 negotiations in 2013. So, the next time you hear someone claim REDD+ projects are ‘greenwashing’, do me a favour and ask they respect the rights negotiated by developing countries.
As a voluntary carbon offsetter, can I buy REDD+ credits?
REDD+ governance does tend to have more uncertainty because of a less clear baseline, as well as politics. Development and land use competition can be very political.
Some voluntary offsetting providers do not issue REDD+ credits as a result. Remember that the role of voluntary offsetting is to speed up carbon projects. It makes more sense for them to focus on more certain projects. This does not mean that REDD+ projects are not important, or should be scrapped. We would stand to lose a great deal of forest if that were the case.
Improving methodologies and increasing incentives for robust REDD+ governance is essential, but is mostly worked on an inter-governmental/ UN level, or direct corporate partnerships (i.e. people with more leverage). That said, making carbon accounting mainstream will make that progress easier for most countries.
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Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) methodologies for reforestation & afforestation
Credible carbon offsetting certifiers generally refer to methodologies submitted to the UNFCCC. For reforestation and afforestation projects, there are methodologies for large and small scale forests. They are broadly similar; the small scale ones are simpler.
Unlike carbon offsetting projects which are engineered, or contained on-site, nature-based carbon offsets such as forests are more complex. This is because natural ecosystems respirate, storing carbon (‘carbon sinks’) but also releasing it (‘carbon sources’). Forests are only considered carbon sinks because, on balance, they store more than they release.
Therefore, reforestation methodologies rely on estimating the difference in forest biomass. That increase, if any, is what generates carbon credits from that year.
Reforestation methodologies also set criteria to determine whether the tree planting project is additional or not. In other words, ‘would forestry have been a plausible land use after all’? In order to qualify for carbon credit funding, the project needs to show that there is land use pressure, and that the reforestation project is likely to lose.
What is the difference between a REDD+ project and carbon credits?
Reforestation and afforestation generate carbon credits in the same way as any other carbon offsetting project; i.e. carbon credits are issued based on the amount of CO2e avoided or removed by the project. (Incidentally, this means that once the forest matures, it may no longer generate credits.)
REDD+ projects tend to cover mature forests, or nearly-mature forests. The objective is not so much about increasing carbon sink capacity, but about not losing it. Consequently, REDD+ projects are about validating forest management, proving continued carbon sink/storage status. The funding mechanism is tied to this performance.
What are the challenges in measuring carbon offsets from planting trees?
A major consideration for forestry projects, is the issue of leakage. Since projects receive carbon funding because there are competing land use possibilities, the project has to account for whether it displaces another activity. For example, if the project is about reforesting grazing land, then it must document what happened to the grazing activity.
Leakage doesn’t mean that a reforestation project can’t proceed. However, if the displaced activity moves to another site, and results in increased carbon emissions, then the forestry project has to account for that. For example, if you have to clear additional grazing land to replace the reforested land, then the project didn’t really result in a climate benefit.
Personally, I prefer tree planting projects which are carbon offsetting projects vs those which are not, precisely because leakage accounting is part of the methodology. Otherwise you may only have a feel-good project.
Another important consideration for reforestation projects, is soil disturbance. This is because there is often a lot of carbon in soil storage. Disturbing it exposes this carbon to the atmosphere, and kicks off processes that release it. Therefore a reforestation carbon offsetting project has to limit such disturbance. Some types of land wouldn’t even qualify, because of this.
This is another reason why I prefer tree planting projects which are carbon offsetting projects. The methodology helps to ensure that the benefit is real.
If a forest burns down, what happens to the carbon credits?
This is a fairly common misgiving at the back of our minds. Let’s say you bought carbon credits from a forestry project, but the forest burns down or is cut down. After all, global warming itself will make forest fires more likely in many locations. And let’s not talk about countries where even permanent reserve forests are constantly in danger of urbanisation.
Would you lose your carbon offset? Do you have to replace the credits? How would you even know this happened?
Why environmentalists should learn other disciplines
To be honest, I was never truly worried about this. I didn’t worry because, even though I’m an ecologist by training and an environmental scientist by profession, I understand other disciplines like finance and insurance. I know that there are tools we can adapt in these professions to provide risk hedging in carbon finance. Surely it was only a matter of time.
And indeed, that’s exactly what is happening. For example, VCS requires all such projects to ‘pay’ extra offsets into an insurance/buffer pool. In other words, for a given amount of carbon credits the project generates, it has to put in some into this buffer pool. How many depends on the project’s risk, similar to how an insurer comes up with your insurance premium. Projects managed under the same provider therefore insure each other.
So let’s say something happens to the stored carbon. One of the forests burn down, within the crediting period. The carbon offsetting provider can cancel an equivalent amount of buffer credits to account for the reversed offset. This approach is becoming more widely adopted. Hopefully, soon it would be universal.
This is yet another reason to prefer a forestry project that is a carbon offsetting project, and to choose a large fund that has a strong buffer program. You are a lot more certain that your forestry-based carbon credit really is permanent.
- What equitable forest protection looks like, and other climate-related resources; Climate Communication.
- Gold Standard methodologies.
An important part of the Paris Agreement is recognition that countries must have the freedom to choose the combination of methods for how they meet their climate ambitions, because each nation has vastly differing circumstances. A solution that doesn’t make sense to one country – however large and influential – may be perfect for another. Would forests in your country be saved if they were carbon projects?
I would like to acknowledge Gold Standard and Verra for providing information and resources that facilitated the writing of portions of this article.