Carbon offsets have wide-ranging environmental benefits

In allowing polluters offset carbon emissions by paying for forest owners reduces greenhouse gas emissions, Stanford study finds

A groundbreaking California program that sells carbon offsets is astonished to see the environmental benefits, such as providing an environment for species that are threatened and offers lessons for other initiatives being developed in other states and nations.

It’s not possible to make money from trees but you can make money by watching trees grow. At the very least, you can with the help of a groundbreaking California program that permits forest owners throughout all over the United States to sell carbon credits to businesses that are required from the government to lower emissions. Researchers from Stanford studied the program and discovered that it has important environmental benefits, beyond the mere offset of greenhouse gas emissions.

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“Many developing nations with huge forests are looking at similar programs to stop the loss of forests,” said lead author Christa Anderson an undergraduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. “California offers the first proof of concept using the government’s program to credit the standing forest.”

For more information on carbon offsets please visit Carbon.Credit.

Storing more carbon

California law states that the state must reach the 1990 levels of greenhouse gases by 2020, and to be 40 percent lower than the levels of 1990 in 2030. The market for cap and trade which covers power utilities and industrial facilities, as well as transport natural gas and fuel suppliers are the foundation of the initiatives. On markets, environmentalists have the option to purchase offsets in order to meet a portion of their emission reduction needs.

Forest offsets which comprise the majority of offsets within California’s cap-and-trade market, are a result of forest owners changing how the land is managed to ensure that the trees can conserve more carbon. It could mean cutting down trees less frequently and reforestationing areas that were previously forested or enhancing the forest through different management techniques. In any case, professional foresters review the modifications to ensure they’re efficient.

For every additional tonnes of carbon dioxide they store in their trees the forest owners receive a credit of approximately $10 to offer to California businesses that must reduce the greenhouse emissions. Since its inception at the end of 2013, the program has brought the forest owners around $250 millionand offset the emission of 25 million tonnes of carbon emissions – equivalent five percent the annual vehicle emissions.

Some critics say offset purchases enable polluters to not cut emissions, and they may also credit reductions that would have been achieved with out the offset program. Although valid, the claims are not proven in the study that was published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Exhibit A to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program The researchers highlight the fact that the majority of the forest owners participating in it are forest businesses as well as investment land owners who were cutting down their land before. They had to change their ways of doing business to be able to take part in the program. This is another proof of the impact offsets have on land.

Although California’s cap-and-trade program allows forest offsets in an amount equivalent to 8 percent of polluters’ emissions, the amount that has been issued to date is just 2 percent of total cap emissions. Because the number of offsets is very tiny, polluters are still required to cut their own emissions on their own rather than buying offsets. The whole program results in reductions in emissions that would not have been possible without it according to the Stanford scientists discovered when they looked at the metrics that are used to verify the sturdiness of individual projects.

But Anderson along with her colleagues caution against making use of forest offsets in large amounts because they can distract attention from urgent and significant emission reduction goals elsewhere. A good example is that state legislators recently introduced a bill that would change California’s energy sector to 100% renewable energy sources in 2045.

Lessons that go beyond California

The forest offsets approach may invert the standard paradigm in which conservation-oriented landowners manage land primarily for that purpose, and achieve sustainable forest management and carbon sequestration as co-benefits. Through the California program forest owners with diverse motives alter their land management in order to achieve higher carbon sequestration. They also receive sustainable conservation and forest management as co-benefits. For instance, 17 of the 39 offset forest projects studied contain habitats for endangered species. They also are the people who benefit from management changes focused on carbon sequestration.

“California is working out its trade and cap plan for the near future.” the coauthor of this study Katharine Mach who is a senior researcher within the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. “Forest offsets have made up an insignificant but substantial component of the state’s climate actions up to now, and could determine what direction California will go next.”

Carbon offset schemes in the process of being developed across Canada, China and elsewhere should take some cues from California’s model as per Stanford researchers. Some of them include:

A 100-year period in monitoring offsets following the last credit was received gives assurance that the offsets that are credited represent real reductions in emissions for a longer period of time.
The majority of offset projects gain substantial credits within their first year. This could allow projects that are otherwise financially infeasible.
Through embracing projects with multiple motives – not just those that focus on carbon sequestration, California does not limit participation in programs and reaping benefits.
Since the program’s minimum carbon base is based upon highly respected U.S. Forest Service census information, the confidence in the climate benefits it offers is very high.

In the meantime, researchers propose improving the state’s forests offset scheme by requiring the participants to provide a wider array of information on the co-benefits as well as by taking into account the risks of climate change for the program.