Forests used as carbon offsets rise in wildfire flames

Wildfires in the American West are burning large swathes of specially protected forests – those that are part of carbon offset projects ...


Wildfires in the American West are burning large swathes of specially protected forests – those that are part of carbon offset projects intended to offset the carbon dioxide pollution pumped into the atmosphere by human activity.

Carbon offset programs, designed to tackle climate change, typically pay landowners to manage their land in a way that stores carbon. Usually that means paying landowners not to cut trees.

Forest fires, however, do not abide by these agreements.

According to CarbonPlan, a nonprofit climate research organization, about 153,000 acres of forests that are part of California’s carbon offset project have burned so far this summer. Three projects were affected. In Oregon, a quarter of the Klamath East project, or nearly 100,000 acres, has burned in the Bootleg fire since early July.

“The worst fire season in Western US history is underway,” said Danny Cullenward, director of policy at CarbonPlan. “This story has just crashed headlong into some of the big bets that policymakers and private companies have made on the role of forest carbon as a climate solution. What we are seeing is that a bunch of projects are on fire.

Forests store carbon by removing carbon dioxide from the air and trapping it in tree trunks and other shoots. However, when a tree burns, this carbon is released into the atmosphere.

California’s carbon offset program works by paying landowners if they commit to managing their land for 100 years in a way that stores more carbon than they otherwise would have.

Companies that wish to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions can then purchase credits that represent the extra carbon stored in forests like these.

An official with the California Air Resources Board, which oversees the state’s carbon offset program, declined to comment on CarbonPlan’s findings.

The program has sparked controversy, including criticism that credits have been overstated and that some landowners have taken advantage of the system by accepting payments in exchange for protecting forests that have not been felled. But experts say the wildfires have exposed one of the program’s main weaknesses: the small size of the so-called buffer pool.

Buffer pool is a bureaucratic term for a simple idea: it is an insurance policy against disasters like fires. This is because carbon offset projects also protect a small percentage of additional land so that if a disaster strikes a project, that additional pool of land – with contributions from many different projects – can offset the losses.

But too many fires mean the insurance policy might not be enough.

“If the current rate of fire loss continues, the buffer pool will not be sufficient – and this loss will increase with climate change,” said Barbara Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Program at the University of California in Berkeley.

This month, Microsoft said that offsets the company had bought were burning. BP also bought offsets in a large project that is now burning, according to a report from the Washington Department of Natural Resources. (In an email, a BP official said the company does not rely on carbon offsets to meet its emission reduction targets.)

CarbonPlan estimates are based on maps of projects in the California cap-and-trade program overlaid on active fire perimeters tracked by the federal government. According to CarbonPlan, three other carbon offset projects are close to major forest fires.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Forests used as carbon offsets rise in wildfire flames
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