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Tina Casey headshot

Forests, Carbon Offsets and a Clear Path to Decarbonization

Emerging evidence gives brands that engage in forest projects for carbon offsets an opportunity to highlight their support for sustainability, but they should continue paying attention to the impact on communities.
By Tina Casey
A view of a forest from above.

(Image: Paul Summers/Unsplash) 

Local tree-planting projects have engaged community volunteers in neighborhood conservation efforts since the environmental movement of the 1960s. Such efforts pale beside the massive forest projects underway today. Still, brands that seek carbon offsets in the reforestation field should continue paying attention to the human factor, particularly when prioritizing biodiversity and ecosystem restoration.

Forests are carbon sinks …

The role of forests in carbon management is, at heart, a simple one. Trees are important carbon sinks. If left undisturbed, they can lock carbon dioxide away for decades, at the very least. Many species of trees live for centuries or longer.

Because human activity has whittled away at forests on a global scale, the opportunity exists to reverse the decline and restore these natural carbon sinks. About 30 percent of all global carbon dioxide emissions since 1850 are the result of deforestation, according to the MIT Climate Portal.

Leading brands have already taken up the large-scale tree-planting mantle in support of the World Economic Forum’s “Trillion Trees” pledge of 2020, although concerns over reputational risk were already arising. Establishing a new tree plantation can cause community displacement, for example. 

Still, there are many opportunities to engage in tree projects without such risks. Existing forests are a more effective pathway to restoring the global carbon sink potential of trees, according to a new study

“So far, humans have removed almost half of Earth’s natural forests,” the study reads. “At present, global forest carbon storage is markedly under the natural potential.”

The researchers estimate that 61 percent of restored carbon sink potential could come from protecting existing forests, enabling trees to mature and biodiversity to flourish. Another 39 percent could come from planting new forests on available land, meaning land that is not already populated, farmed, or otherwise unavailable for large-scale tree planting.

“Although forests cannot be a substitute for emissions reductions, our results support the idea that the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of diverse forests offer valuable contributions to meeting global climate and biodiversity targets,” the researchers wrote.

… but it’s complicated when it comes to carbon offsets

In terms of carbon offsets, the cautionary note about reducing emissions should be taken under advisement. The overwhelming consensus is that forests are significant carbon sinks. The U.S. Department of Energy, for example, included large-scale forest projects in its 2023 decarbonization roadmap.

Nevertheless, new research indicates that forest-based carbon offsets are no substitute for reducing emissions at the source.

In May of 2023, for example, the journal Science published a study that explored the unlikely scenario of eliminating all forest management activities in favor of all-natural forest restoration. 

“This work provides further evidence that changing forest management is not an alternative to cutting carbon emissions,” Bianca Lopez, an associate editor at Science, wrote.

The U.S. Forest Service took note of another complicating factor last April when it published a study indicating that climate change has already caused some forests to deteriorate, potentially leading them to act as carbon emitters instead of carbon sinks. The issue of forest deterioration was also studied in China, where researchers advise that aging forests are less efficient at trapping carbon.

In a similar study in Japan, researchers advocate for a more rigorous approach to calculating the impact of forest projects, with an emphasis on taking tree age into consideration. The research team also advocated for a stronger relationship between local communities and carbon markets, enabling underserved populations to realize the economic benefits of forest conservation. 

A recent study from MIT and Imperial College London provides additional insights on the ways brands can ensure that their carbon offset projects are effective, including biodiversity and social goals.

Trees and other natural climate solution projects have “enormous potential to deliver ‘win-win-win’ outcomes for climate, nature and society,” according to the study.“Yet the supply of high-quality [natural climate solutions] projects does not meet market demand, and projects already underway often fail to deliver their promised benefits, due to a complex set of interacting ecological, social and financial constraints.”

Challenges to overcome 

One challenge identified by the researchers is the project funder’s preference to focus on risk avoidance rather than project effectiveness.They found that many carbon offset projects focus on improvements at commercial tree plantations because data and transparency are relatively established, helping to mitigate risk. In contrast, projects that emphasize biodiversity are challenged by a lack of established metrics.

The overwhelming majority — 96 percent — of U.S. forestry carbon offset credits were related to improvements in forest management, rather than biodiversity-oriented projects like forest ecosystem conservation or tree planting, according to research from the University of Colorado Boulder.

The expectations for a social benefit from forest projects can also lead to disappointment.

“Socioecological co-benefits of [natural climate solutions] are unlikely to be realized unless the local communities engaged with these projects are granted ownership over implementation and outcomes,” according to the MIT and Imperial College study.

Next steps for effective forest projects

Despite the challenges, government-funded forest projects tend to focus on a holistic approach that emphasizes biodiversity, which brands can support through new public-private financing models, according to the MIT and Imperial College study. The public funding element also “nests” a project within established national frameworks for monitoring and data collection, helping to mitigate reputational risk.

The researchers also point out that the development of new “green taxonomies” for sustainable investment in carbon offsets can help alert brands to projects that could involve human rights violations and other risks.

In addition, a substantial body of knowledge has developed around the social criteria for a successful forest project.

Successful projects “have robust internal governance, as well as support from regional and national governments; they operate in environments where land tenure is secure; they provide material benefits for local communities; and they allow for the full participation of women and those across a spectrum of socioeconomic groups,” according to the study.

The development of platforms for calculating the value of natural ecosystems is yet another factor aiding forest biodiversity projects.

In support of the nature valuation movement, for example, the Joe Biden administration issued a first-of-its-kind proposal requiring federal agencies to account for ecosystem services in their cost-benefit analyses for new infrastructure projects last fall.

All in all, the field of forest management, conservation and replenishment is a complex one. Nevertheless, as new science-based evidence emerges about the role of trees in carbon management, brands that engage in forest projects for carbon offsets have new opportunities to highlight their support for global sustainability — going far beyond a simple matter of planting trees to embrace habitat conservation, biodiversity and social equity.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey