California Forest Carbon Offsets Burned Between Record Fires

The Caldor Fire set fire to trees near South Lake Tahoe, California on Monday.

Picture: Jae C. Hong (AP)

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In 2013, California passed a landmark law limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but the idea that trees absorb more carbon from the atmosphere allowed companies to exceed pollution levels by investing in protecting forests across the country. The law was seen as an exemplary initiative to combat climate change, while also providing businesses with some flexibility in reducing pollution.

Eight years later, there is a big problem: As of last week, there were more than 41,000 forest fires that burned more than 4.6 million acres across the country – as big as New Jersey. And more than 150,000 of those areas were in the West Coast forests, where corporations had to compensate for carbon emissions.

When the original program was developed, California assumed that some forests would be burned naturally, and therefore the law required polluters to take a little more forest area as an insurance mechanism to calculate such losses. However, experts say that the forested areas in the so-called “buffer pools” have not brutally estimated the amount of trees burned during climate change.

Companies that invest in forestry to combat greenhouse gas pollution and look responsible do not have to invest more when forest fires burn these losses later. Conclusion: Fires are now fueling widespread emission reduction projects needed to combat the climate crisis.

Think Wildfire Risks

When forests burn, they emit carbon dioxide. For this reason, California’s carbon offsets are designed to separate more than 2% to 4% of its forests to account for such wastes. William Anderegg, an associate professor at the University of Utah, said the size of these buffer pools “in no way corresponds to the risks faced by forests in the United States in a changing climate.” 2020 paper assessed climate-related risks for carbon offset projects.

Anderegg found that the risk of moderate to severe forest fires in the United States nearly doubled between 1984 and 2000, partly due to climate change. He said 2% to 4% of the forest area allocated to California’s carbon compensation projects has never been enough to compensate for forest fire losses before calculating the effects of climate change.

“If you just look at the historical records and assume that the rest of the century is similar to 2010 – a very low estimate – [wildfire] The risk is 10 percent, “he said.” But if you take into account climate change, the probable risk is in the range of 20-30 percent. “

Recent forest fires have confirmed Anderegg’s warnings. Only this fire season, the flames were extinguished Almost a quarter of the Klamath East project in Oregon and 12 percent of the Colville project in Washington state are important parts of California’s carbon offset projects around the West Coast.

Just as insurance companies use risk sharing to protect against isolated losses, so should all non-carbon compensation projects lend to an excessive tree pool.

But according to Bodie Cabiyo, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley Energy and Resources Group, “most of these forests are in western forests prone to forest fires, as they are in California.” This means that the portfolio will not be diversified enough to meet the risks of forest fires over the next 100 years.

These wooden buffer pools also face another problem. A latest research CarbonPlan, a non-profit organization that specializes in climate research, said that the environmental benefits of California’s carbon-extracted forest projects have been systematically overestimated and therefore have not eliminated 30 million tons of carbon emissions.

Such overestimations also apply to sections of projects allocated to cover forest fire risks.

“Buffer pools are already full of overvalued loans,” said Barbara Haya, lead author of the CarbonPlan study and director of the organization. Berkeley Carbon Trade Project. This means that these pools can adequately cover the emission effects of forest fires.

Representatives California Air Resources Council, (CARB) manages the province’s cap-trading program, did not respond to a request for comment.

“Now we have the burning forest offsets”

Big brands have invested in carbon offset forest projects to achieve emission reduction targets, and many of these companies are openly proud to try to convince their customers and investors that the business is environmentally responsible.

Now, some of these offset projects are going up in smoke – but companies that use these adaptations under the program don’t have to buy more forest space to cover losses in the event of a buffer pool fire.

For example, Microsoft openly boasted investments in carbon compensation. Including is a great investment In the Klamath East project in California, a protected forest area managed by a forestry company that lost about 100,000 of its 400,000 acres in Oregon this summer.

Elizabeth Willmott, Microsoft’s carbon software manager, said, “Now we’ve got burning forest offsets.” he said on a carbon cleaning panel earlier this month. “We do not want this to force us not to invest in solutions based on nature … [but companies must] Be really smart to know what the risks are. “

Similarly, BP, a recent multinational oil and gas company was introduced then investments in carbon compensation It costs more than $ 100 million Get a $ 13 million emission loan from the giant Colville carbon offset project in Washington state. But this summer, about 50,000 of the project’s 450,000 acres burned.

Last year, a California working group was tasked with updating the state’s offset protocols. was presented among other efforts, a report recommending that firefighting efforts be given priority in carbon offset forest projects.

However, Anderegg of the University of Utah said the working group’s recommendations focused on business interests that benefit from carbon offset projects, including wood companies. Anderegg said that several environmentalists resigned from the working group earlier this year “because it did not take into account the interests of this group.”

According to Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trade Project, no project adjustments or offset recalculations will solve the main problem of California’s carbon compensation program: Companies choose to invest in forest compensation because it avoids more difficult but more important problems. is to completely reduce their emissions.

“If we want our climate policy to succeed, we need to look at the evidence clearly and decide whether to rely on offsets in any way,” Anderegg said. “Direct reductions in emissions will be more effective and less risky.”

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