Forests used to offset the greenhouse gas emissions of corporations are going up in smoke due to wildfires that are likely intensified by – you guessed it – climate change.
The Bootleg Fire starting tearing through southern Oregon after being sparked by a lightning strike on July 6, 2021. As per an update on August 3, the wildfire has since burned 1,675 square kilometers (647 square miles) of land and become the largest wildfire of the 2021 US wildfire season so far. Although 84 percent is contained, the fire continues to rage.
In a cruel twist of irony, some of the forested areas that have been affected by the wildfire are being used for carbon offset schemes. The blazes have reportedly affected an area known as Klamath East, owned and operated by the Green Diamond Resource Company, according to CNN. Back in February 2021, the forestry company sold a quarter-million tons of carbon removal credits to Microsoft to compensate for a quarter-million tons of the tech giant’s carbon emissions.
A representative of the Green Diamond Resource Company told CNN that it’ll take several weeks after the fire is extinguished before they can assess the damage to the forests. However, it’s unlikely the damage will upset any of the carbon offset deals since these programs often take into account that some forests may be destroyed by fire.
Carbon offsetting can be a fiddly business, but it boils down to individuals, organizations, corporations, cities, or countries investing in environmental projects in order to balance out their own damage to the environment. This might involve helping with the rollout of clean energy technologies, making energy-efficiency improvements, or simply funding forest projects that will see trees absorb carbon. For instance, company X might pump out ten tonnes of carbon emissions each year, so they agree to invest in projects that will result in ten tonnes of carbon emissions being removed from (or not entering) the atmosphere. This allows organizations or whoever to meet their commitments to curb climate change without directly severing their ties to fossil fuels.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been put into carbon offset markets over the past 20 years. While some argue they are practical tools to improve long-term sustainability, others contend they essentially mean “business as usual” and it fails to bring around fundamental structural change needed to address the climate crisis.
Researchers and activists have linked carbon offsetting to financial fraud, phantom emissions reductions that don’t actually have any real impact, and “creative accounting” used by companies to manipulate financial numbers. Other critics have pointed out that the schemes can also fuel “climate colonialism.” In short, it’s cheaper to set up offsetting projects in the Global South, resulting in a dynamic whereby the developed countries can continue to freely use fossil fuels, while the lands of developing nations are used for offsetting.
As these recent wildfires have gently hinted, carbon offsetting can be well-meaning but it'll some time before they even make a dent in the larger problem at hand.