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California’s forest offsets do not address climate change

A recent paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment asks, “Are forest offsets an effective way to address climate change, and do they provide other benefits?”

The authors, Christa Anderson, Christopher Field, and Katharine Mach, are from Stanford University.

To determine whether forest offsets address climate change, they ask whether the emissions reductions are “additional”, in other words whether the reductions would have happened without the forest offset programme. They conclude that “the program advances stringent ‘additionality’ of emissions reductions through multiple mechanisms”.

The paper is deeply flawed and can only reach its conclusion by pretending that additionality can be tested, and by ignoring the problems with offsetting.

In 2015, polluting corporations in California used forest offsets in order to emit 4.7 million additional tons of carbon dioxide. In total, California’s forest offset programme is responsible for 25.5 million tons of emissions from burning fossil fuels. The forest offsets are generated from 39 projects in the US covering a total of 349,000 hectares of land. Sixteen are in California. Six projects are “avoided conversion” projects, the remainder are “improved forest management” projects.

Under California’s cap-and-trade rules, forest offset projects can receive carbon credits for 25 years after the project starts. Projects have to continue monitoring and maintaining forest carbon stocks for 100 years. The first of California’s forest offsets were approved in November 2013. It’s impossible to know what might happen to the forests between now and 2113, but we do know that the corporations that bought forest offsets did so in order to continue emitting greenhouse gases.

Offsets are controversial

The authors admit that forest offsets are controversial, but they list only two reasons:

  1. Forest offsets allow purchasers to avoid having to reduce their own emissions; and
  2. The “additionality” of emissions reductions credited to offsets is difficult to assess – that is, whether forest offset programs stimulate additional emissions reductions or instead give credit for emissions reductions that would have happened anyway.

The authors fail to address the fundamental problem of additionality. In order to generate carbon credits, a manager of a forest offset project has to create a story about what would have happened in the absence of the project. This is the baseline, against which the project is measured. If the forest contains more carbon than the baseline, the project can generate carbon credits.

But there is no way of testing whether or not the baseline is true or not, because it is based on something that did not happen. Baselines are “untestable guesses”, the authors of a 2016 paper in the International Forestry Review argue.

Or, as Larry Lohmann, of The Corner House puts it, in a discussion about REDD baselines,

The problem is not “bad baselines” but the concept of counterfactual baselines itself. That reality does more than invalidate any particular REDD project. It invalidates REDD (and all other offsets) as a whole.

Leave the oil in the soil

The authors do not explain the difference between the carbon stored as fossil fuels and the carbon stored in forests.

Fossil fuels only emit carbon to the atmosphere if they are dug out and burned. Once released the carbon joins the global carbon cycle, where it moves between the atmosphere, the oceans, and the biosphere.

Trees store carbon for a relatively short period. They absorb carbon while they grow, but eventually trees die and decay, and the carbon returns to the atmosphere.

The authors fail to explain that in order to address climate change, we need to leave fossil fuels underground.

The authors conclude that forest offsets are “unlikely to detract from overall emissions reductions because the forest offsets occupy a small fraction of California’s cap-and-trade market by design”. This doesn’t get around the fact that forest offsets, like all other offsets, allow the continued burning of fossil fuels, and therefore do not help address climate change.

The authors quote a 2012 two-page leaflet from Environmental Defence Fund to conclude that “regulated entities must substantially reduce their own emissions even if they purchase and use offsets”. Needless to say, the authors don’t mention that EDF has campaigned for years to get offsets included in California’s cap-and-trade scheme.

Additional nonsense

The authors point out that they are interested in the additionality of the overall programme, not the additionality of each offset in the programme. They acknowledge that some projects “may be over-credited by having non-additional credits”. But that doesn’t concern them because, “with all projects evaluated by the same standards, the overall program should achieve program-level additionality”.

The authors “hypothesized” that projects run by conservation organisations “have a lower likelihood of achieving further emissions reductions”, because conservation organisations are unlikely to log the forest for profit. They found that 13% of forest offsets are generated from projects run by conservation organisations. Apparently this is a small enough percentage not to affect “overall program additionality”.

They also developed an “active logging hypothesis”. If a forest is being logged before the offset project starts, “joining the offset program would be more likely to induce altered practices, leading to further carbon sequestration”. They found that most improved forest management projects were logging when the offset project started, so they decided that, “the active logging hypothesis suggests overall program additionality”.

The authors note that 20% of all forest offsets are held by the state in a “buffer pool”. These offsets are held in reserve in case forests burn down, or are attacked by bark beetles. The authors do not question whether 20% is adequate. Climate change will exacerbate drought in California, meaning that forest fires and beetle infestations are likely to become more serious.

The authors point out that, “California’s forest offset program does not offer guidance on accounting for climate-­change impacts such as changing fire regimes, precipitation, or disease outbreaks.” They add that,

Climate change is affecting US forests, potentially compromising both mitigation and co-benefits, especially given the minimum 100-year project duration. Yet no projects voluntarily report on climate-­change impacts in their project documentation.

Nevertheless, the authors conclude that California’s forest offsets “provide an important opportunity to supply meaningful carbon sequestration”. That is nonsense. Offsets do not reduce emissions. Offsets allow fossil fuel emissions to continue. And that is what is causing climate change.

Full disclosure: This post is part of a series of posts and interviews about California’s cap-and-trade scheme, with funding from Friends of the Earth US. Click here for all of REDD-Monitor’s funding sources.

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  1. Another excellent post in this series – very helpful for my fellow members of the Sunflower Alliance, the coalition of East [San Francisco] Bay organizations that are fighting cap-and-trade scams and current plans for expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure in our communities and state-wide.

  2. This is climate SMART project. It must be applicable.

  3. @Asnake Dejen – Why do you believe that a programme that allows continued burning of fossil fuels is climate smart?

  4. Regardless of the GHG offset linked to REDD+ projects, the real contribution of them is the protection of forests. Alternatives to fossil fuels like biofuels are have increased the risk of deforestation in many parts of the world.

    At the end of the day REDD+ projects are a market based tool to transfer financial resources to initiaves that attempt to forest protection. It is far from being a panacea but those resources are needed.

    That been said, congrats on the blog. Great source of independent questioning to misleading affirmations.