Increasing Wildfires Could Negate the Effects of Forest Carbon Offsets
In 2022, the Financial Times reported:
Wildfires have depleted almost all of the carbon credits set aside in reserve by forestry projects in the U.S. to protect against the risk of trees being damaged over 100 years, a new independent study has found.
As a result of fires, six forest projects in California’s carbon trading system had released between 5.7mn and 6.8mn tonnes of carbon since 2015, the non-profit research group CarbonPlan estimated. That was at least 95 per cent of the roughly 6mn offsets set aside to insure all forest projects against the risk of fire over a century-long period.
This month Oregon Public Broadcasting remembered what happened in Oregon, where The Green Diamond timber company promised to slow logging on 570,000 acres. “In exchange, the company received millions of dollars in payments from Microsoft and other companies seeking to offset their carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels by paying to grow more wood on this land.”
Then came 2021’s Bootleg Fire:
In burning through nearly 20% of the company’s Klamath project lands, it also has helped to stoke a broader debate about the ability of the multibillion-dollar forestry offset markets to deliver the carbon savings that are supposed to happen from these deals… During the fire, Green Diamond lost live trees that stored some 3.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That is equivalent to the greenhouse gases produced through the course of a year by more than 785,000 cars driving 11,500 miles.
A small portion of Green Diamond’s lost carbon went directly into the atmosphere through combustion as the fire swept through the forest. The vast majority now resides in dead trees. They will eventually release this carbon as they topple to the ground and begin the decades-long process of decay, or perhaps more quickly should another fire sweep through this land. Fires also have caused big losses in two other Pacific Northwest forest tracts that had been used to offset fossil fuel pollution. In Northeast Washington, wildfires have repeatedly buffeted a large carbon offset project on the lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville. In Central Oregon, the Lionshead Fire torched most of the acreage of a carbon offset project developed by the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs. That project — like Green Diamond’s — is likely to be terminated.
It’s not just happening in the U.S. In June Bloomberg reported that “Canada’s explosive wildfire season has already pumped millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Some of that carbon is coming from vegetation burned at a carbon offset project, highlighting the fragility of a tool the world is relying on to fight catastrophic climate change.” (Though an executive running one project said “About 100 hectares of our 40,000 hectare project was involved in this fire,” or about 0.25 per cent of the project.)
Oregon Public Broadcasting points out that there’s currently 149 forest carbon projects on 5.5 million acres in 29 U.S. states…