Carbon Offsets Are Climate Scams. Wildfires Will Make Them Worse.

Published May 14, 2024


Climate and Energy

Carbon offsets purport to save forests and “cancel out” climate pollution. Wildfires risk more emissions from what is already a greenwashing scam.

Carbon offsets purport to save forests and “cancel out” climate pollution. Wildfires risk more emissions from what is already a greenwashing scam.

In August 2020, the Lionshead Fire ripped through 190,000 acres of forest in Oregon, wreaking havoc on nearby communities. But on top of endangering residents, the fire also sent most of the state’s biggest forest carbon offset project up in smoke, emitting massive amounts of climate pollution into the atmosphere. 

The project was funded by credits sold through the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) Compliance Offset Program. Under this program, a corporation can buy credits that fund “climate-friendly” projects, like forest maintenance, to “cancel out” or “offset” the emissions of its operations.

But carbon offset programs are rife with bad accounting —- they often don’t have the climate impact they claim. Moreover, forest projects are increasingly threatened by climate change-fueled wildfires like the Lionshead Fire. As our recent research shows, forest fires could release millions of metric tons of carbon in CARB’s program alone. 

This threat makes it even clearer that carbon offsets are not a reliable tool to address climate change. Instead, we need to tackle emissions at the source, reining in polluting industries like oil and gas and factory farming.

Carbon Offsets Overpromise and Underdeliver

Carbon offsets have become popular in recent years, as polluters scramble to greenwash their operations without actually decreasing emissions. If you’ve ever heard a company make a “net-zero” pledge, they’re often using carbon offsets to meet this goal. 

Offset programs allow companies to continue to pollute while declaring they have “net-zero” emissions because they’re funding carbon storage elsewhere. These programs usually claim that one credit translates to one ton of emissions kept out of the atmosphere.

However, the underlying assumption of these programs is that they store carbon that otherwise wouldn’t be — a claim that’s hard to verify. As a result, these programs often overestimate their impact. For example, in 2021, an estimated one-third of CARB’s offsets were “ghost credits,” meaning they didn’t really store additional carbon.

In fact, offset programs could lead to an increase in overall emissions. They give corporations license to continue polluting the climate, regardless of whether offsets actually balance out that pollution.

Climate-Fueled Wildfires Will Send Offset Forests Up in Smoke

The premise underlying many forest carbon offset programs is, at its root, nonsensical. Many carbon offset programs only protect and monitor their forests for 40 years. Yet corporations’ greenhouse gas emissions do effectively permanent damage to our climate.

Even this 40-year timeline isn’t dependable, as forests are vulnerable to natural disasters. Notably, they’re under major threat from wildfires, which are growing in intensity, size, and frequency due to climate change. And research suggests this problem will only get worse — wildfires may quadruple across the country in coming decades. 

Take CARB’s forest offset program. Food & Water Watch found that over half of the forests in this program have moderate to very high wildfire hazard potential.1Under the U.S. Forest Service’s wildfire hazard potential (WHP) index, areas with higher WHP have “a higher probability of experiencing high-intensity fire with torching, crowning, and other forms of extreme wildfire behavior under conducive weather conditions.” If wildfires destroy all CARB forests with high or very high wildfire hazard potential, they would release 51 million metric tons of carbon. That’s the same as a year’s worth of climate pollution from 11 million cars on the road.

CARB’s program includes buffer pools of forests not attached to a specific credit, but they’re in the program to account for possible forest loss. Yet, in less than a decade, fires may have already depleted CARB’s 100-year buffer pool for wildfire risk.

These offset programs are not sustainable or dependable. A single wildfire could release millions of credits’ worth of carbon into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the companies buying those credits will happily continue spewing emissions that will wreak havoc on our climate for generations.

Learn more about how wildfires and carbon offsets threaten our climate future in our new fact sheet.

Offset Programs’ Perverse Incentives Harm More Than Just the Climate

Carbon offset programs are yet another example of the harms of so-called “market-based solutions.” They’re structured less to save the planet or with any other considerations in mind, and more to save companies money.

Many of these programs lack guardrails or accountability. While offset projects need to be third-party verified, these third-party monitors are incentivized to be lenient in their enforcement. All parties involved — the program, the companies buying credits, and even the monitors — benefit financially from overstating a project’s climate benefits.

Additionally, forest offset programs often target the activities of small farmers, Indigenous peoples, and low-income forest users, many of whom have lived in or around these forests with little impact for generations. The programs don’t challenge big industries like logging, mining, and factory farming, even though they are way more destructive.

This points to another problem with offset programs — they often lead to “carbon land grabbing.” Under the guise of carbon offset forest projects, governments and companies will seize Indigenous lands and displace the people who live there. Such displacement has often been accompanied by human rights abuses.

Instead of Buying Carbon Offsets, Corporations Must Stop Pollution at the Source

Carbon offset programs operate under the bogus idea that if we just give companies the right incentives, they’ll do good. Instead, corporations have shown again and again that they’ll manipulate the incentives to benefit themselves, without fixing the root problem. 

With carbon offsets, as with other climate boondoggles, corporations show they’d rather toss a few million dollars into a greenwashing scheme than reduce their own pollution. 

The combination of forest offset programs and wildfires creates a double hit to our climate. First, a corporation gets away with polluting-as-usual because they’ve bought credits to protect a forest. Then, the protected forest goes up in flames, emitting all the carbon it was supposed to be storing. To add insult to injury, corporate climate pollution is driving the climate crisis that is in turn fueling bigger and more destructive fires.

Offset markets are not helping combat climate change, and governments cannot and should not rely on them. Instead, they have to confront polluters head-on with real policy changes. They must tackle pollution at the source by curbing deforestation, banning factory farms, and phasing out fossil fuels.

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