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The Bankruptcy of Carbon Offsets

Embers fly above a firefighter as he works to control a backfire as the Delta Fire burns in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. The blaze had tripled in size overnight. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

There are many problems with the idea of carbon offsets. Among them is the laughable idea that capitalism can solve climate change. That is most certainly never, ever, ever going to happen. But even without that point, the problem is that they assume the stability of an environment in a world where the environment is inherently unstable. Moreover, they exist because humans are a species smart enough to transform the environment but too stupid to do it in a way that works. So the environment has become even more unstable. Thus, you have efforts by companies to buy carbon offsets in forests. But then the forests burn thanks to the climate change they are causing and you are back to Square Zero.

In this patch of Southern Oregon forest, young stands of ponderosa and lodgepole pine once pulled carbon dioxide out of the air, storing this greenhouse gas in their trunks, branches and roots.

Today, these trees are charred black snags that bake in the summer sun. Most stand erect, a few so bowed that their tops curl down to touch the ground.

They were killed by the fierce heat of the Bootleg Fire, which raged through here in July 2021, sending up huge pyrocumulus clouds of smoke and ash some 30,000 feet into the earth’s atmosphere — generating their own thunderstorms.

For Justin Kostick, forestry manager for the Green Diamond timber company, this bleak landscape has become a familiar, depressing sight. He spent days and nights on fire lines in a largely unsuccessful effort to slow Bootleg’s advance through the company’s Klamath Basin lands. Since then, he has returned to the burn zone again and again to supervise the planting of some 4.2 million new seedlings.

This was supposed to be a showcase for Seattle-based Green Diamond’s forestry strategy for a warming world. The company had committed to century-long plans to slow the pace of logging on some 570,000 acres. In exchange, the company received millions of dollars in payments from Microsoft and other companies seeking to offset their carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels by paying to grow more wood on this land.

As temperatures rise due to the buildup of greenhouse gas pollution, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere has emerged as a key part of the broader battle to limit the effects of climate change by shifting away from fossil fuels. Some of that may be done by new technologies now under development that can take carbon dioxide out of the air and put it in long-term storage. Yet, so far, almost all of that removal has come from forest or other land-based projects, according to a global assessment released earlier this year by scientists who concluded these efforts must greatly expand to keep global temperatures from rising more the 1.5 degrees Celsius — which is the increase nations agreed to try not to exceed in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The Bootleg Fire upended the Green Diamond carbon storage plans in Southern Oregon. In burning through nearly 20% of the company’s Klamath project lands, it also has helped to stoke a broader debate about the ability of multibillion-dollar forestry offset markets to deliver the carbon savings that are supposed to happen from these deals.

Earlier this year, Green Diamond filed documents with a California state regulatory board that calls for an offset project covering most of the company’s Southern Oregon acreage to be “terminated.”

And let’s be clear, the biggest companies in the world are desperate for these things to work so they can look good and greenwash their actions.

Yet because the tribes had the legal right to harvest this timber, the land could still qualify for credits, some of which were used by Chevron U.S.A. and Tesoro Refining and Marketing to offset fossil fuel emissions in California, according to a review of documents filed with the California board.

Skepticism about carbon forest storage projects also has been voiced by some investors.

Microsoft is buying offset credits as part of a push to make the corporation “carbon negative” by 2030 and intends to “ultimately remove” the corporation’s greenhouse gas pollution footprint. A Microsoft executive once responsible for investing in forest projects, Elizabeth Willmott, reported that the company received 189 proposals to remove 154 million metric tons of carbon, mostly through trees.

Just 2 million tons’ worth of projects passed corporate review.

“Today, there’s simply not a lot of really secure forest carbon projects,” Willmott said in a 2022 interview with National Geographic. “We see a problem with that across the U.S. and across the world.”

Microsoft, in a statement, said Green Diamond projects met Microsoft standards for “high-quality carbon removal.” The corporation declined a request to make Willmott available for an OPB interview, according to a spokesperson, because she had moved on to a new corporate position.

Some researchers also cite what they view as a more fundamental flaw in using forests to offset fossil fuel emissions. Under the California board rules, the projects commit to store carbon dioxide for at least a century, yet the greenhouse gasses released by the combustion of oil, gas and coal may linger in the atmosphere for 1,000 years or more.

“It’s a really, really big mismatch,” said Grayson Badgley, a forest ecologist with CarbonPlan, a California-based nonprofit that watchdogs the state’s forestry offset program. “For that balancing act of pollution and offsetting to really equal out for us …. we need to match the duration of the storage of CO2 with the duration of how long it stays in the atmosphere.”

The whole idea is absolute, complete, 100% nonsense.

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