Which Type of Forestry Carbon Offset is Best? Learn the Types of Credits Available

By Georgette Kilgore | Updated on September 14, 2021

The number of forestry carbon offset programs you can fund is steadily increasing, and with more options available, the decision can become more difficult. With forestry carbon offsets, there are a number of considerations.

Some programs are easier to implement than others, some are more effective, and some are just flat-out cheaper.

But.. which is the best for the planet?

An 8 Billion Trees graphic illustrating trees and a stream, with statistics showing the power of forestry carbon offsets, including 31.6 tons of CO2e removed from the atmosphere.

There is one clear way to know which forestry program provides the best way to remove carbon emissions (not just spread them around).

Keep reading…

Why Carbon Removal through Reforestation Is the Best Forestry Carbon Offset Solution

When done correctly (and that requires a lot), reforestation programs with tree planting carbon offset projects deliver an effective way to actually remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere, because these programs rebuild and replace natural carbon sinks that are supposed to be here.

When done correctly, reforestation helps preserve and restore the very ecosystems that sequester harmful greenhouse gases (GHGs), namely carbon dioxide (CO2), making them invaluable in the climate fight.

Keep reading to learn why the ‘correct’ method is so crucial…

What are Carbon Removal Offsets and Credits?

A “carbon credit” is a unit representing a carbon emission “allowance” in dollar value. It’s an incentive used to encourage business owners and corporations to be more sustainable, and landowners to store carbon dioxide on their land. The landowners are paid when the credits are purchased by others to “offset” a CO2 generating process.

Credits and offsets are really two sides of the same coin. The credit represents an amount of CO2 that can be stored out the atmosphere… and when someone or some company purchases that credit, they are offsetting that amount of CO2, so that action is typically called a carbon offset.

Participants can sell and trade offsets and credits in either of the two market types:

  • Voluntary: Companies operating in these markets are doing so purely out of their own will. It’s a great way to demonstrate your company’s dedication to sustainability and environmental responsibility. Prices in this market fluctuate often. For example, in 2018, they ranged from as little as $0.1-70 MtCO2e (per metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent).1
  • Compliance: Pricing in these markets is often more stable than in the former. However, they’ll vary depending on the state enforcing the law, and the type of program implemented. For instance, carbon credit prices in a cap-and-trade program (currently just shy of $17 MtCO2e in California) will differ significantly from an emissions trading system (a bit more than $8 in Massachusetts at the time of this article’s publishing).

Not all carbon offset programs are equal, though.

Types of Forestry Carbon Offset Programs

Although all forestry carbon offset projects are focused on using forested landscapes for carbon dioxide capture and storage, many practical distinctions separate the alternatives. One of the main differentiators is the price, which can change based on your locale, but the most important is the method outlined for conducting the program.

Autumn trees in a forest in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, with an 8 Billion Trees watermark.

Here are a few examples of carbon pricing in North America and worldwide:2

  • California, cap-and-trade (CaT): $16.89 tCO2e (per ton of carbon equivalent)
  • Massachusetts, emissions trading system (ETS): $8.26 tCO2e
  • Baja California, carbon tax: $8.03 tCO2e
  • Mexico, carbon tax: $0.35-2.79 tCO2e
  • Average pricing for all covered carbon emissions (representing about 15% of total GHG emissions):3 < $10 tCO2e

Each of these offset types has its benefits in terms of cost and eco-friendliness. However, forestry carbon offsetting is a multifaceted approach designed to slow climate change damage for good, with several much-needed additional sustainable perks.

Afforestation, Reforestation, or Revegetation (ARR)

Afforestation, reforestation, and vegetation (ARR) encompasses many climate-saving actions, including the establishment, growth, or restoration of plant life in a given landscape.

  • Afforestation is the act of establishing a forest on land that had not previously been forested.
  • Reforestation is the process of replanting an area with trees that had been previously deforested. (Hint: This is the most effective!)
  • Revegetation is a similar process, but involves other plants as well, with the goal of replanting and replenishing the health of soil in a disturbed area.

This is a crucial form of carbon offsetting, as forests are arguably the most significant carbon sink the world has, aside from the ocean. Currently, forests sequester (remove from the atmosphere) over 14 percent of U.S. economy-related CO2 emissions, and scientists look forward to increasing that to 20 percent per year.5

Specifically, participants focus on planting and rearing woody vegetation, such as trees, for their carbon-sequestering capabilities. But, under most of these programs, the native ecosystems contained within the project boundaries cannot be cleared within ten years of the project’s beginning.4

Forest undergrowth and fallen trees in Sequoia National Park, California, with an 8 Billion Trees watermark.

ARR is a bit on the pricier end of carbon offsetting alternatives, since there are so many logistical and legal components involved.

Jonah Busch, a researcher at the Earth Innovation Institute, told the Global Landscapes Forum that forest restoration is a “cost-effective relative to many other climate solutions.”6 This is in part because of all the advantages newly planted trees provide in addition to carbon offsetting, such as improved water quality and habitats for native species.7

Some organizations that plant trees have specific criteria concerning the areas they target, which ensure a more diverse and successful outcome, including:

  1. There are at least 1,500 species of plants present.
  2. At least 70% of the vegetation that once inhabited the landscape has been removed or otherwise lost.

Avoided Conversion (AC)

Avoided conversion is one of the easiest forms of forestry carbon offsetting to implement, but sadly, it’s one of the offset strategies that has been exploited. Essentially, participants just leave the forests alone! AC prevents forests being converted into grazing and pasture land.

However, there’s a catch with AC projects. Carbon offset project developers must be able to prove that the forest faces a significant conversion threat to show that their initiative is viable.1 This is called additionality. If an AC project does not have additionality, then the forest was never at risk of being cut down to begin with. This means any “carbon savings” from it are essentially null, since they would have occurred either way.

As stated by the International Union of Concerned Scientists (IUCN), “Halting the loss and degradation of natural systems and promoting their restoration have the potential to contribute over one-third of the total climate change mitigation scientists say is required by 2030.”8

Although, avoiding clearing and removing carbon sinks is a great idea, the fact that offset programs have been unregulated has allowed AC to become one of the least impactful programs.

Improved Forest Management (IFM)

Like ARR, IFM entails several climate-friendly options for companies looking to shrink their carbon footprint. Choices include:5

  1. Reduced Impact Logging (RIL): Lower your emissions by switching to RIL when timber harvesting instead of conventional methods. RIL has been proven to be financially viable, too, as it costs significantly less than conventional techniques ($3.14 per m3 vs. $4.49 m3, respectively.9)
  2. Logged to Protected Forest (LtPF): Convert forested land that’s currently reserved for logging activity to protected areas.
  3. Extended Rotation Age (ERA) or Cutting Cycle: Increase forests’ carbon stocks by raising the age at which the trees are harvested. This allows the trees to grow larger and can provide wildlife habitat for longer.
  4. Low-Productive to High-Productive Forest (LtHP): This is similar to revegetation, part of the ARR approach described above. By planting forests more densely, an area can be made into a “high-productivity” ecosystem, meaning it can capture and store more carbon dioxide.

Since this type shares many similarities with ARR, there are shared features in terms of their financial requirements. For example, under IFM and ARR, participants may need to develop a new forest management plan. Consultations for this can cost anywhere from $1,000-5,000. Additionally, there might need to be baseline studies to guide goal setting, which could cost $50,000-100,000.5

Each of these elements can influence carbon credit pricing, for better or worse.

However, IFM does not focus on the long term benefits of old growth trees, but rather, sustainable use of the renewable resource (wood), which does very little to actually remove carbon dioxide.

An 8 Billion Trees graphic showing the various benefits of forests for both human and environmental health.

The Verification Process for Forestry Offsets

Participation from major companies is a fantastic component in the effort to mitigate climate change. Yet, how do offset programs monitor and verify an organization’s carbon credits?

Verra, a non-profit organization operating globally, has set and maintained the standard for forestry carbon offset verification since 2005. As of this year, Verra has registered an impressive 1,687 projects through the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), “the world’s leading voluntary GHG program,” as the organization describes it.10

Through the VCS, Verra-associated projects have eliminated over 630 million tons of carbon dioxide and other GHGs from Earth’s atmosphere. Yet, carbon offset projects must ensure that their estimations of reduced gases are accurate to deliver the appropriate amount of carbon credits to all contributors.

That’s where verification comes in.

How Does Carbon Offset Verification Work?

This process involves the assessment of project developers’ data through the auditing of a collection of samples. The carbon credits can only be issued after this verification process is complete. To ensure all project developers record their data correctly, they must adhere to data recording standards, the specifics of which are determined by the project type:11

  • Specific GHG “accounting boundaries.” These define the carbon dioxide sources (things that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere) and sinks (areas that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). This helps shape the project’s baseline and realized emissions.
  • Baseline estimation method. This details how a project developer is allowed to estimate their program’s baseline scenario. (A “baseline scenario” reflects the state of the environment before any emissions mitigation action is taken.)
  • Monitoring requirements. This standard instructs project developers on how they can collect data on emission predictions and actual emissions. It also informs personnel on the kinds of estimations that are deemed acceptable, and which specific formulas to use in their data recording.

Project developers are responsible for these three elements that precede the actual verification. Adherence to these standards ensures that the next steps will go smoothly. Once all the data is compiled, an independent, third-party verifier comes in to fulfill their two main responsibilities:

  • Project validation: The verifier will ensure that the project meets the necessary eligibility criteria.
  • Project verification: The verifier will confirm that the project monitoring methods were in line with the standards described above. They’ll also review the developer’s calculations and may visit the project site to audit (collect) data to ensure accuracy.

This is all done to ensure carbon emissions are effectively removed from the atmosphere and that you get the credits you need to trade and sell on the market. The verification process does more than provide an approving label… the verification process helps an offset project to identify the areas in which it can improve, whether that be during the planting, record-keeping, or otherwise.

To strengthen your confidence in your chosen projects and the verification process, Verra has recently implemented significant changes.

These changes include the introduction of new tools to establish locally accurate baselines, since these will vary by location. Additionally, participating companies will be required to contribute a certain percentage of their credits to a “buffer.” This essentially acts as a form of insurance.

In case an environmental disaster occurs that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, such as a fire or illegal deforestation, the appropriate number of buffer credits are cancelled. The hope is that this will further encourage the reduction of carbon emissions in the future.12

Why Reforestation Done Correctly Offers the Best Solution for Removing Carbon Emissions Long Term

The sad truth is that many of the afforestation, IFM, and AC options don’t remove carbon for a long term solution. Reforestation, when done right, does.

For example, if an organization decided to conduct an afforestation project, and then sells the ‘carbon credits’ from the potential trees they plan to plant, the benefits to the planet are in limbo until the trees mature… and there’s no guarantee that the trees won’t later be removed.

Likewise, if the organization planting the trees doesn’t do lots and lots of research about the local habitat and ecosystem, but simply brings in trees for their resale value, the disruptions to the local wildlife and bionetwork can be extremely harmful.

But, when areas that were already natural carbon sinks are replaced, using native species and native biodiversity models, the chances of long term survival of the rebuilt forest rises exponentially. Plus, the added benefits to the wildlife and local water cycles help continue to heal the land and restore what has been lost.

These long-term solutions keep removing carbon emissions because they aren’t going to be removed 10, 20, or 40 years later for their valuable hardwoods.So, the planet keeps on gaining from the reforestation for decades and centuries to come.

8 Billion Trees workers taking care of tree saplings in a Brazilian nursery, getting ready for reforestation efforts.

Taking Action

Forestry carbon offsetting programs are arguably the best chance humanity has for fighting the mounting risks associated with human-caused climate change, but reforestation done correctly is the only carbon offset removal program that has the chance to make a real difference for both the planet and wildlife. (To find out how many emissions you need to erase, use an ecological footprint calculator to measure your yearly output.)

You can join the cause by partnering with one of the best carbon offset programs that carry out forestry carbon offset projects, which remove emissions for the long term, and support the planting or conservation of forested lands throughout the world.


References

1Parajuli, R., Megalos, M., Ruseva, T., Chizmar, S., & Fisher, M. (2019, July 10). An introduction to forest carbon offset markets. NC State Extension Publications | Browse Popular Publications. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/an-introduction-to-forest-carbon-offset-markets

2World Bank Group. (n.d.). Carbon pricing dashboard. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://carbonpricingdashboard.worldbank.org/map_data

3The World Bank. (n.d.). What is carbon pricing? Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://carbonpricingdashboard.worldbank.org/what-carbon-pricing

4Students of Research for Environmental Agencies and Organizations, The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Connor, R., & Gaertner, K. (2018). Forest carbon credits: A guidebook to selling your credits on the carbon market. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://www.bu.edu/rccp/files/2009/11/Guidebook.pdf

5Domke, G. M., Oswalt, S. N., Walters, B. F., & Morin, R. S. (2020). Tree planting has the potential to increase carbon sequestration capacity of forests in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(40), 24649-24651.  Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2010840117

6Dwyer, A. (2019, July 18). What’s the right carbon price for reforestation? Landscape News. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://news.globallandscapesforum.org/37245/whats-the-right-carbon-price-for-reforestation/

7Gorte, R. W., & Ramseur, J. L. (2008). Forest carbon markets: Potential and drawbacks. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL34560.pdf

8International Union of Concerned Scientists. (2018, December 5). Forests and climate change. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/forests-and-climate-change

9Holmes, T. P., Blate, G. M., Zweede, J. C., Perreira, R., Barreto, P., Boltz, F., & Bauch, R. (n.d.). Financial costs and benefits of reduced-impact logging relative to conventional logging in the Eastern Amazon. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/econ/pubs/misc/tph001.pdf

10Verra. (2021, April 23). Verified carbon standard. https://verra.org/project/vcs-program/

11Broekhoff, D., Gillenwater, M., Colbert-Sangree, T., & Cage, P. (2019). Securing climate benefit: A guide to using carbon offsets. Stockholm Environment Institute & Gas Management Institute. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://www.offsetguide.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Carbon-Offset-Guide_3122020.pdf

12 Verra. (2021, March 5). World’s most widely used standard for carbon offset credits strengthened to advance forest preservation and restoration. Retrieved May 11, 2021, from https://verra.org/worlds-most-widely-used-standard-for-carbon-offset-credits-strengthened-to-advance-forest-preservation-and-restoration/