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US Wildfires Destroy Carbon Offsets
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Blog...US Wildfires Destroy Carbon Offsets

US Wildfires Destroy Carbon Offsets

Ecology News
Global Warming
fire
US wildfires are anticipated to eradicate much of California's forestry reserves under the state's carbon offset system.
Ecology News
2024-01-25T00:00:00.000Z
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fire

2022’s seasonal round of wildfires are blazing through hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, forcing the evacuations of thousands people from their homes, with these numbers increasing daily, according to CalFire.gov. As well as posing an obvious threat to infrastructure and human life, there’s a particularly concerning problem that these wildfires pose to California’s carbon offset system.

In this article, we'll explain what's going on with the wildfires in California, how wildfires have started, and how we can mitigate them in the future – especially in California.

What’s going on in California?

Record-breaking wildfires

A quick look at the California Fire Map & Tracker can reveal how alarming the wildfire situation has become in America’s most populated state. 

California has barely had time to recover, with last year’s wildfires burning 2.5 million acres of land, and with this year likely to beat that record. 

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saving calforniia

This round of wildfires is currently blazing through large portions of California’s “buffer pool” of trees – which was planted as part of the state’s carbon offset program, and was a reserve which was supposed to last for 100 years. 

But to understand what is really at stake, and what this “buffer pool” is, we first need to understand the concept of carbon credits, and how California’s carbon trading system works. 

What are carbon credits? 

Carbon credits are exchangeable certificates that allow a company the right to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide. One carbon credit represents one ton of carbon dioxide. These credits apply under different regulatory systems designed to offset corporate greenhouse gas emissions. Companies are granted a certain amount of credits corresponding to their activity, and they must purchase more credits to offset each ton of carbon that they emit beyond their limit. 

Carbon credits are a necessary part of a company’s carbon neutral or net zero strategy. 

Credits are obtained through various certified projects that involve the capturing of carbon emissions. Tree planting and forestry projects are examples of natural carbon capturing, through the tree’s natural ability to absorb CO2.

What about California’s carbon offset system? 

Trees are an effective way to pull CO2 directly from the atmosphere, but the lesser-known weakness of trees is that all of the CO2 they store is released back into the atmosphere once the tree is cut down, burned, or killed through other means. 

But if some trees end up dying, do the credits paid for in carbon offsetting projects still count?

This is exactly why California's offset system includes the concept of a “buffer pool”. The buffer pool compensates for the risk that some of these trees will inevitably be destroyed (through events such as wildfires, for example). 

This buffer pool is like a form of insurance. 10-20% of funding that goes towards these offsetting projects is directed towards the buffer pool, which essentially means that extra trees are planted. That way, if there are any acres of trees lost or destroyed, they can be accounted for by retiring credits from the trees in the buffer pool. 

As long as there are enough trees remaining in the buffer pool, a company’s carbon credit purchase remains valid, as any tree destroyed is essentially insured for. The buffer program was designed to cover any risks (disease, wildfire, drought, that may destroy offsetting projects) over the next 100 years. However, unprecedented levels of wildfires have “depleted nearly one-fifth of the total buffer pool in less than a decade” according to a study by the research group CarbonPlan. 

👉 At the rate these wildfires are burning, it is “incredibly unlikely that the program will be able to withstand the wildfires of the next 90 years”, says Oriana Chegwidden, a co-author of the CarbonPlan study

green forest in wildfire

Does global warming actually start fires?‍

Depending on where you’ve been spending your summers, you might feel like you’re about to burst into flames, but the connection between climate change and wildfires is a little more complicated than that. 

The compounding effects of climate change

Even in 2022, we are already starting to see the effects of global warming carried out in real time. Wildfires around the world are blazing at unprecedented levels, largely due to the compounding factors of flammability, all due to climate change. According to the EPA, “multiple studies have found that climate change has already led to an increase in wildfire season length, wildfire frequency, and burned area”. 

The main factors involved include 

  • Warmer temperatures
  • Longer dry seasons
  • Dehydration of soils and plant life

As can be seen with the overall increase in seasonal US temperatures, the spring seasons that are getting hotter earlier on each year imply that late-spring snowpack is melting sooner than ever. This means that the summer water supply is drying up faster, causing unusual drought conditions, early in the season, and allowing wildfires to spread exponentially faster. 

The extension of the dry seasons brings about unprecedented droughts, and these droughts bring about water shortages and restrictions. Vegetation dries up, and drier flora allows better conditions for sparks to become wildfires. 

This phenomenon is taking place all around the world, with extreme temperatures threatening plant-life, causing a plethora of problems, amongst them being the threat of wildfires. 

Climate change is making wildfires even more likely. And if wildfires weren’t bad enough, they are also a major emitter of CO₂, further contributing to climate change! This concept is known as a positive feedback loop, which is when the side effect of a reaction leads to a further increase of that reaction. 

👉 There are many examples of positive feedback loops in environmental science, but ultimately – this is one of the major reasons why we need to get the climate under control as soon as possible, as the problems will be much more difficult to manage down the road!

ash brown on road wildfire

Is carbon offsetting the solution? 

Carbon offsetting is a necessary part of a company’s carbon neutral goal, but over-reliance on these permissions can be deceiving. The ideal solution for corporations to combat climate change is by way of reducing their carbon emissions as much as physically possible, and only using offsetting projects as a final resort, for inevitable emissions that cannot be avoided. 

However, some companies with enough capital think that it is more financially viable to simply pay their way out of emissions restrictions, by funding more and more offsetting projects instead of restructuring their operations to be more environmentally friendly. 

This could be a colossal mistake for companies, however. A review by BP confirmed that many fossil fuels will be run out in 50 years if we continue to use them at the current rate, and legislation on emissions is only expected to become more strict. We can easily decipher that fossil fuel usage and unchecked carbon emissions are soon to be a thing of the past. Therefore, the best investment for a company is to start its decarbonisation process as soon as possible. 

‍💡 It is important to remember that carbon offsetting doesn't reverse climate change, and it also doesn’t guarantee carbon reduction.

According to the Financial Times, last year’s bout of wildfires in California burned through much of the offsetting projects bought by companies such as BP and Microsoft. With this recent example of summer wildfires burning through carbon offsetting projects statewide, and with the buffer pool soon to be wiped out, it’s clear that carbon offsets don’t guarantee a promise of making carbon disappear. 

While useful in some circumstances, carbon offsetting alone does not offer a solution to climate change. First of all, the carbon offset market, valued at $262B, only offers a solution to large enough companies with the money to pay for the permission to damage the environment. This “solution” provides yet another way for companies with more capital to get even further ahead, crushing competition from smaller companies, and further dividing the economic gap. 

👉 In addition to this, carbon offsets are sometimes used as a tool for companies to boast about their sustainability, but in the end only serve as another greenwashing technique, while the company can continue to not reduce emissions elsewhere in their operations. 

people on sight of wildfire

What can you do to prevent forest fires?

Wildfire prevention 

The fires in California are making headlines, but these aren’t the only wildfires around the world. From France to Alaska, people are witnessing heat, drought, and fires like never before. For the people living in areas prone to wildfires, officials recommend clearing small brush from the landscape, which provides particularly effective fuel for fires to run on. 

In California, goats have even been used as an effective tool to reduce certain excess vegetation and brush that works like kindling for fires.

These small gestures can help, but it doesn’t address the real problem of the destruction of the carbon credit buffer pool. 

Instead of using carbon offsetting projects, reduce your carbon as much as you can 

Carbon offsetting is a tempting solution for companies looking to satiate the CSR demands of increasingly conscious customers and employees, but it should be used with discretion. According to the IEA, in order to reach the 2050 goal of limiting climate increase to 1.5C as outlined in the Paris Agreement, we must incorporate other solutions other than offsetting alone. 

According to the UN, in order to reach these goals, Net-zero commitments must be backed, and this starts with “cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible”. The second step of reabsorbing remaining emissions through offsetting projects should only come after this first commitment has been reached. 

If offsetting is necessary, opt for other capture techniques

Carbon offsetting projects can exist in many different forms. While some projects include reforestation initiatives as discussed in this article, there is also blue carbon, and direct carbon capture techniques 

  • Blue carbon is the carbon stored in coastal and marine ecosystems, which sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. These ecosystems are much more efficient (than terrestrial forests) at absorbing carbon during photosynthesis, and retain large amounts of carbon in structures such as mangroves, tidal marshes, and seagrass beds. 
  • Companies can also offset through direct carbon capture techniques, which means that carbon is directly captured from a location in which carbon is produced, such as coal and gas power plants, or factories, by separating it from other gasses and byproducts of production. It is then compressed in a form fit for transport, and can be shipped, and then stored in a secure underground location
dusk wildfire

The best way to fight fires is by fighting climate change

If reading this article about the wildfires in the U.S. in California have made you interested in reducing your emissions further, it might be time to seek the help of a third-party resource like Greenly.

Enterprises are also playing a major role in contributing to global carbon emissions, and your company or organization can do its part!

Call our experts and ask for your carbon footprint assessment, to get started on your emissions reduction journey today!

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