Forests Used as Carbon Offsets Rise in Wildfire Flames

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Wildfires in the Americas are burning large, specially protected forests that are part of carbon offset projects aimed at offsetting the pollution of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by human activities.

Carbon offset programs designed to combat climate change often pay landowners to manage their land to store carbon. Often this means paying landlords not to cut down trees.

But forest fires do not abide by these agreements.

According to CarbonPlan, a nonprofit climate research organization, an estimated 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 close to 100,000 acres, has burned in the Bootleg Fire since early July.

“The worst fire season in western US history continues,” said Danny Cullenward, CarbonPlan’s director of policy. “This story hits head-to-head with some of the big bets policymakers and private companies are making about the role of forest carbon as a climate solution. What we’re seeing is a lot of projects are on fire.”

Forests store carbon by pulling carbon dioxide from the air and locking it in tree trunks and other growths. But when a tree burns, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

California’s carbon offset program works by paying landowners if they commit to managing their land for 100 years to store more carbon than they normally have.

Companies looking to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions can purchase credits like this one that represent the additional carbon stored in forests.

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

The program sparked controversy, including criticism that loans were overvalued and that some landowners took advantage of the system by accepting payments in exchange for preserving forests that could not be cut. But experts say the wildfires highlight one of the main weaknesses in the program: the small size of the buffer pool.

A buffer pool is a bureaucratic term for a simple idea: It’s an insurance policy against disasters like fire. In fact, carbon offset projects also preserve a small percentage of the extra land, so that if a project disaster occurs, this pool of extra land – with contributions from many different projects – can make up for the losses.

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

“If the current rate of fire loss continues, the buffer pool will not be enough – and that loss will be exacerbated by climate change,” said Barbara Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

This month, Microsoft said: the company bought was burning. BP also purchased offset in a major project that is currently on fire. Washington Department of Natural Resources. (In an email, a BP official said the company does not rely on carbon offsets to meet emissions reduction targets.)

CarbonPlan’s estimates is based on Maps of projects enrolled in California’s cap-and-trade program are covered with active fire circles monitored by the federal government. According to CarbonPlan, three additional carbon offset projects are near major wildfires.

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