Forests have the tremendous ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help mitigate human caused climate change. Forests help regulate ecosystems, protect biodiversity, play an integral part in the carbon cycle, support livelihoods, and can help drive sustainable growth.
Forest restoration has grown in popularity in recent years as one way companies can offset their carbon emissions. Amazon, Delta, Lyft, JetBlue, and others have all pledged to offset their greenhouse gas emissions through carbon offsets.
But for forests to have maximized climate benefits, we must manage them properly – and restore lost forested landscapes the right way.
Forest offsets have become especially popular among industries looking to lighten their carbon footprint. But for forest carbon offsets to be effective, the carbon needs to be stored for approximately 100 years.
For that to happen, the reforested area has to be healthy and smartly managed – and so far, that hasn’t always been the case:
- A recent study has shown that many forest-based climate solutions do not yet rely on the best available scientific data when understanding the risk for offset projects.
- The increased risks of natural threats such as fire, drought, and biological agents pose a threat to these offsets. If forests are densely packed, then they are less likely to survive a fire or drought.
- Human disturbances also pose a significant threat to forest carbon offsets since most offset projects have been based in the Amazon.
- “Not fully accounting for the range of climate- and human-driven risks to forests can result in an overestimation of the carbon storage potential of forest-based mitigation projects,” said Deborah Huntzinger, professor in the School of Earth and Sustainability at Northern Arizona University.
As with any “investment,” it’s important to understand both risk and reward. If a forest goes bust — whether through severe drought, fire, or logging — much of the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere.
In order to have a successful forest carbon offset, proper forest management is essential. For successful forest carbon offsets, the following need to be considered:
- Avoid growing too many trees per acre to allow the trees space to thrive.
- Make sure trees are not densely packed to help in times of drought and infrequent rain, and to avoid the long-term risks of wildfire.
- Keep the albedo effect in mind: “By changing the forest cover, we can inadvertently increase solar radiation stored by reducing reflectivity,” Huntzinger explained. “By being mindful of not only the carbon side of it, but also the biophysics side, it can have a net-cooling impact on our climate.”
So remember, it’s not just the amount trees you plant, but how you plant them that can make all the difference in helping to create an effective carbon sink.
But Offsets Alone Aren’t the Answer
“When a company buys offsets, it helps fund projects elsewhere to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as planting trees in Indonesia or installing giant machines inside California dairies that suck up the methane produced by burping and farting cows and turn it into a usable biofuel,” Wired writes. “What offsets don’t do is force their buyer to change any of its operations.”
Carbon offsets are a valuable tool to address climate change, there’s no doubt about it. But the responsibility does not end there. To make an actual impact, companies and other organizations need to work to reduce their emissions as well.
By not finding ways to reduce their emissions and simply offset them, companies are really just kicking the can down the road and buying themselves time to keep polluting.
Why Does This All Matter
Given the tremendous ability of forests to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the current state of the climate crisis, making sure we use proper forest management to maximize the effectiveness of carbon offsets is crucial. These offsets by organizations — alongside emission reductions — have the ability to remove massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.
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