Purchasing carbon offsets is a popular way to act against global warming, or at least to alleviate one’s conscience. An offset allows a business, government or individual to pay someone else to remove a given quantity of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere rather than cutting emissions themselves. The purchaser is then free to pollute a specified amount, usually in metric tons.
Purchasing offsets may be voluntary or in compliance with regulations. The market in offsets, which can be traded like other assets, is booming.
Popular among corporations from Amazon to airlines, offsets are offered on projects from planting mangroves to funding wind turbines. A favourite is maintaining forests. For example in Oregon, Green Diamond Resource Co. is preserving 400,000 acres of forest it owns to compensate for greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. Early this year, Microsoft paid Green Diamond to offset a quarter million tons of the company’s 2021 carbon emissions.
Unfortunately, a massive wildfire is now tearing through Oregon and as of late July had consumed almost a quarter of Green Diamond’s project area. The carbon offsets are themselves, literally, going up in smoke.
The assets are insured to a degree by a “buffer pool.” The California Air Resources Board, which determines who qualifies for offsets, requires that companies set aside 10 to 20 percent of their carbon credits to allow for fire loss. Nonetheless, as fire risk increases with global warming, many researchers are concerned the buffer pools are inadequate.
Trees, it seems, can be a risky bet for storing carbon. A fire occurs and the carbon is suddenly pumped back into the atmosphere. Recent studies have indicated that due to fires even the Amazon rainforest is now producing more greenhouse gases than it’s sequestering. Forests elsewhere could eventually meet the same fate.
How ironic that even solutions to global warming can become part of the problem. Planting trees is always a good thing, but ultimately the place to reduce carbon is at the source.