Wildfires in the western U.S. are burning “protected forests” on private lands that were set aside specifically to counterbalance the carbon dioxide that humans continually pump into the atmosphere. These forests are part of a carbon offset program designed to fight climate change.
Carbon offset programs pay landowners to manage their land for 100 years, in ways that store carbon, removing it from the air. Typically this is an agreement not to cut down the trees, allowing them to absorb carbon emissions from the atmosphere. CarbonPlan reports a loss of 25% of Klamath East Carbon Offset project, close to 100,000 acres, due to the Bootleg Fire, while California lost 153,000 acres from three separate projects so far this year. Many companies purchase offsets to meet emissions reduction targets. Microsoft reported some of their carbon offset projects were also burning this year.
Policymakers and private companies place a great deal of hope in projects dependent on forest carbon as a climate solution. As wildfires roar through the West, these hopes burn too. There is a buffer pool consisting of “extra land” that is available to make up for losses such as these. Critics argue the buffer is too small. While that may or may not be true, the facts remain the same: the buffers are currently burning, so even if we didn’t need more in 2020, we do now.
Swan Score: C
Carbon Offset Program pays private land owners for growing trees.
Fire Protection Association
Outnumbered by wildfires, carbon offsets can’t be saved in 2021.
Reforestation is necessary to restore a healthy fire ecosystem.
Carbon offsets seen as wildfire fuel, not protection against wildfire.
Policymakers hoping buffers are large enough may be wise to hedge.