Offsets in fire: forest fire risk for carbon credits from tree planting

In July of this year, a forest fire broke out in a forest plantation in northeastern Spain, destroying 14,000 hectares of trees in Bubierca, Aragon. There have been many such fires across southern Europe this summer on the continent the worst drought for 500 years. But it was not just any forest. The trees that burned were part of a reforestation project by Dutch company Land Life, which sold carbon sequestration from trees to industrial polluters so they could offset their emissions and comply with European Union climate laws.

Companies site invites companies to “convert their CO2 into forests”. In this case, these forests have turned back into CO2.

Land Life has not yet disclosed how much carbon was released back into the atmosphere during the Bubierka fire. But there is confessed that the fire was started by a spark from a backhoe being used by a local contractor in the plantation nursery. Oh.

The accident is one of a growing number of carbon-emitting forest fires that are casting doubt on claims that a booming business in so-called “natural solutions” can help fight climate change.

Plantations feel the heat

Offsets of various kinds are a growing element of efforts to stop the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. Most large companies that have committed to zero emissions plan to use them; so do most national governments as part of achieving their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Most offset programs rely on carbon sequestration by trees – claiming carbon credits for planting them, protecting those at risk, or managing forests to increase their carbon stocks. Concerns about the permanence of these carbon stocks are growing as climate change causes droughts and heat waves that is increasing annual forest loss due to forest fires.


Some of the worst breakdowns occurred in the fire-prone American West, where many forests are located. Last July, about 1,600 hectares of forest on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state were destroyed in the fire. It happened a few days later another fire in southern Oregon cut through an offset forest containing thousands of tons of CO2 that Microsoft paid to preserve as part of its efforts to achieve zero emissions by 2030.

A 2018 fire at another offset project at Eddy Ranch in northern California burnt through 99% of the advertised 280,000 tons of credits. Surprisingly, this did not prevent the sale of most of these credits to the American oil refinery PBF Energy soon after. after fire

All of these offset projects in the American West have been certified by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a state agency, for sale to California companies trying to meet the state’s CO2 emission limits. CARB requires certified projects to withhold a portion of their carbon credits from being sold, placing them in a collective “buffer pool” as insurance against wildfires and other disasters. When the credits on Eddie Ranch burned, for example, that buffer went up.

So far so good. But analysis published in August by CarbonPlan, a California-based nonprofit climate solutions database, found that over the past seven years, about 6 million tons of carbon have leaked from just six major California-certified wildfires, consuming nearly the entire century buffer from wildfires . Its authors say that the buffer is not suitable for its intended purpose. And they are not alone.

Growing risk of forest fires

The drive to stem global warming by planting trees has gained momentum after the 2020 World Economic Forum launched program plant a trillion of them. The COP26 Last November’s Glasgow climate conference saw a flurry of pledges to fund offset forests, and corporations greening their public images with net-zero commitments are scrambling to fund them. But there are growing questions about how effective these reparations will prove to be.

On the one hand, they are temporary. While CO2 from burning fossil fuels remains in the air for thousands of years, trees eventually die and give back the CO2 they have captured. Few offset projects promise that carbon storage will last more than a hundred years, and many offer much less.

Meanwhile, wildfires increasingly threaten even those modest ambitions, says William Andereg, a forest ecologist at the University of Utah. First, because fires become more likely – and more intense – as compensated bakers try to increase carbon stocks by planting more trees, turning many forests into tinder boxes. And secondly, because of the consequences of climate change.

U research published last December, Anderegg estimated that fire risk in any given year could quadruple in the US over the course of the 21st century, “disrupting forest carbon storage” and raising “serious questions about the integrity [offset] programs”. In the next chapter assessment published this month, it concluded that an increase in wildfires is almost certain, and large areas of the Amazon and boreal forests bordering the Arctic from Alaska and Canada to Russia “are at particularly high risk in the coming decades.”

Buffers are insufficient

Logging companies understand that not all of their forests will thrive. Many certifiers require them to put some of the carbon credits they expect to generate into buffer pools that can be used by any certified project that is vulnerable to fire or other calamities.

CARB requires each project to allocate 2% to 4% of potential credits specifically for wildfire protection. But forest scientists warn that the size of these buffers is often chosen with little scientific justification, and many are likely to be severely inadequate as climate change intensifies.

All forests around the world are threatened by climate change

Anna Trugman, a geographer at the University of California, Santa Barbara

In the first such analysis, a team of authors led by CarbonPlan environmentalist Grayson Badgley found that the CARB wildfire buffer could be almost exhausted already. They estimated that 95% of the buffer set aside for one hundred years of fire danger promised under the certification system, which went into effect in 2015, had burned in the seven years since then. The buffer is “severely undercapitalized” even under current fire regimes, they conclude.

CARB has answered to the report, saying the best available science is used to estimate the size of the buffer. And it says that as the number of certified offset projects increases, the size of the buffer will also increase, reducing the risk of it being consumed by future fires.

“It doesn’t make sense to us,” says Danny Cullenvord, a law professor at American University in Washington who co-authored the CarbonPlan report. A larger portfolio of projects will also increase the number of forests at risk of fire, he says. The buffer, their report added, “makes no effort to account for the almost inevitable increase in fire risk as the Earth continues to warm.”

This is not just a problem for American accounts. “Forests all over the world are at risk from climate change,” says Anna Trugman, a geographer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. World Forestry WatchThe online platform, which uses data collected by the University of Maryland, reported in August that the rate of burning forests around the world has almost decreased doubled over the past two decades. And the UN Environment Program at the beginning of this year predicted a 30% a global increase in extreme wildfires by 2050, rising to 50% by the end of the century. The California certification errors identified by CarbonPlan are likely to spread globally, Cullenvoord says. The voluntary compensation industry, with hundreds of marketplaces and corporate compensation certifiers, is “essentially unregulated and operates on loose private standards,” he says. His colleague Freya Chai, program manager at CarbonPlan, explains that “some buffer pools do not require a project-level risk assessment”, adding that projects are instead assessed against default factors, “without a clear rationale as to why this is sufficient”. .

Can the ignition be reduced?

What can be done to prevent the carbon offset business from becoming what Cullenvoord calls a “gigantic Ponzi scheme” doomed to failure? Better science about climate risks and tighter regulation of carbon markets will help, he says. Andereg agrees. “If forests are to play an important role in climate mitigation, a huge scientific effort is needed to better shed light on when and where forests will be resilient to climate change in the 21st century,” his new paper concludes.

In the forests themselves, Trugman says, managers can limit the growth of understory — plant life below the forest canopy — which can allow low-intensity ground-level fires to rise to the treetops, where they become more intense and move faster. Deliberately lighting low-intensity ground fires early in dry seasons to reduce dry tinder available later in the season when the risk of large fires is greatest would help. So the animals would graze among the trees. Where there are no animals, European foresters took over acquaintance with the bison as part of wildlife restoration and fire safety measures for their forests.

But ultimately, most forest scientists argue that the best way to reduce wildfire risk in adjacent forests is to slow climate change itself by accelerating the decarbonization of industry and society. There may not be an alternative. Offsets in fire: forest fire risk for carbon credits from tree planting

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