What Is: Carbon Offsetting with a Reforestation Project
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 Carbon Emissions
- Reforestation & Afforestation Carbon Offsetting Projects
- Which forestry projects are also carbon offsetting projects?
- Further reading:
Carbon Offsetting & Net Zero Carbon 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.
Well, yes, and also no.
You may have noticed a growing number of companies pledging to have 'net zero' or 'net neutral' carbon emissions. Invariably this will involve changing the way their businesses operate so that they are less carbon intensive. (And, if there are any carbon emissions left over, they have to be offset through carbon removal projects.)
However, without needing to be particularly good in math, you would realise that even if all businesses are net neutral, the planet 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 per se. Additional things have to be done over and above that. Going net zero is more about not making the problem worse, so that it doesn't constantly become harder and harder to solve.
It's sort of like being trapped in a terrible job. It's a lot harder to find a better job, and pay down your debts, if you keep spending more and more.
Carbon offsetting verification standards
Carbon projects rely on carbon accounting to qualify as a carbon offsetting project. (Jargon cheat sheet article link is at the top).
Carbon projects may be fully dedicated to a company intending to meet net neutral targets (e.g. Qantas' reforestation project), or open for individual voluntary carbon offsetters (like you and I). The latter are usually managed by carbon offsetting service providers such as Terrapass.
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 to close its gaps, 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.
For individual offsetters, we can rely on audits carried out by the service providers to be assured that projects are managed in accordance to standards recognised by 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 planting trees on land which used to be forest. For example, Europe is restoring forests that were 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 have 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 would already support forest, 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 it is one of the only ways we know of to remove carbon dioxide 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 a lot cheaper. As a bonus, it also helps to alleviate the Biodiversity Crisis through restoration of habitat. The Biodiversity Crisis is a separate problem from climate change. However, solving it increases our ability to adapt to unavoidable climate change, which is a reality some of us will have to face.
If you imagine that humanity is on a runaway train, climate action is about slowing down the train. Biodiversity protection 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 reaches equilibrium with the amount it releases through tree death and decomposition. At this point, it stops being a carbon sink. It's just maintaining the storage of carbon.
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, aquifer 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 calculate how much carbon was removed - and stayed removed - by that forest in that year.
Therefore, these need to be projects in countries where there is enough assurance 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 prevailing trend is deforestation. In fact, the 3rd party carbon 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 compensate. Enrolling 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 guess the difference between reforestation and forest protection. Forest protection is not a tree planting project. Rather, it is about preventing an existing forest from being cut down.
Reforestation and afforestation are more straightforward carbon offsetting projects. 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 usually under REDD+ rather than a carbon market. To understand why, you need to understand the earliest debates on environmental justice.
Natural ecosystems are under a lot of land conversion pressure, particularly in less industrialised countries. If these countries develop along the same trajectory as Europe and North America, we have to harvest more forest (and other natural resources) to achieve developed country status, before potentially restoring the forest land afterwards (as Europe is doing).
On the other hand, if we don't, we have the twin burdens of climate change as well as a lower 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 for us, the world cannot afford to give us that development trajectory. Global warming is already well underway; all of our forests must remain intact to save life on earth. Avoided forest conversion is worth 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 the economic baseline context, forest protection in the context of climate change funding is typically a project 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?
It may be possible, but I've not seen it offered. In terms of methodology rigour, REDD+ governance does tend to have more uncertainty because of a less clear baseline, as well as the potential political aspects. Development and land use competition can be very political. This is why voluntary offsetting providers do not usually issue REDD+ credits.
Remember that the role of voluntary offsetting is to catalyse carbon projects. With limited resources, it makes more sense for voluntary offsetting to focus on high-certainty 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. The program is necessary for an equitable energy transition.
Improving methodologies and increasing incentives for robust REDD+ governance to match voluntary programs is essential, but is mostly worked on an inter-governmental/ UN level (i.e. people with more leverage). That said, mainstreaming carbon accounting in general will make that progress easier for the majority of countries.
Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) methodologies for reforestation & afforestation
Credible carbon offsetting certifiers generally refer to methodologies reviewed by the UNFCCC. For reforestation and afforestation projects, there are methodologies for large and small scale forests. They are broadly similar; the small scale forest methodologies 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, it stores more than it releases.
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 prescribe criteria to determine whether the tree planting project is additional or not. In other words, if forestry would 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's possible that it can no longer qualify for carbon credits.)
REDD+ projects tend to cover mature forests, or nearly-mature forests. The objective is not so much about increasing carbon sink capacity, but more 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 reforestation projects, is the issue of leakage. Since reforestation projects receive carbon funding because there are competing land use possibilities, the project has to consider whether it displaces another activity. For example, if the project is about reforesting grazing land, then it must document what happened to the existing activity or competing project.
Leakage doesn't mean that a reforestation project can't proceed. If that were the case, no such projects will qualify. 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 that didn't really make a difference. As someone from a developing country in Asia, land use competition is our reality.
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 consideration.
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.
- 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?