When it comes to choosing which carbon offsets to buy, the choice can be overwhelming – there are just so many projects out there.
Even understanding the different types of projects, and how they work, can be confusing.
It's why at Lune we’ve curated the highest-quality, trusted projects in our library – to help make the evaluation process a little easier for businesses. It’s also why we’re publishing a series of deep dives articles, covering everything you need to know about different types of carbon offset projects, starting with afforestation.
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Afforestation is the planting of new trees in an area where there were no trees before, creating a brand new forest which absorbs and stores CO2. And given that we desperately need to lower the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to mitigate global warming, afforestation projects are an important climate solution.
In fact, we asked Harry Grocott and Rob Godfrey, co-founders of Treeconomy, why afforestation projects are vital in the response to climate change, and they came up with several important points:
They did, however, also highlight that not all afforestation projects do provide these benefits. As with any kind of carbon offset, quality is paramount – and we'll discuss what makes a high-quality afforestation project a little later on in this post.
There are many different ways to categorise carbon offset projects.
At Lune, we focus on two key categories, based on the types laid out in the Oxford Offsetting Principles: is it a carbon removal or emissions avoidance project? Is the carbon stored, and if so, is it stored permanently or is there a risk of reversal?
Afforestation projects fit into the Oxford Offsetting Principles type 4 – carbon removal with short-lived storage.
Trees absorb CO2 and remove it from the atmosphere, using it during photosynthesis – sunlight converts CO2 and water into sugar for the tree to use as energy.
CO2 is absorbed and stored during the tree’s lifetime but is released when the tree dies – which can be 100s (even 1000s!) of years if it dies of natural causes, but may be much less if the tree becomes diseased, is cut down, or is victim to a forest fire – so afforestation provides short-lived storage.
What does quality look like in afforestation carbon offset projects?
Quality should be the number 1 focus when deciding which carbon offset projects to support, and it can be a particular issue in forestry projects – there are an abundance of tree planting projects which are cheap, and so appeal to businesses, but actually have minimal positive impact.
Key traits of a high-quality carbon offset project include:
So what do these mean in the context of afforestation projects?
As highlighted above, afforestation projects provide short-lived carbon storage. Therefore, they can’t be said to be providing a completely permanent solution.
In the right conditions, though, trees can live and absorb carbon for hundreds or thousands of years. So a key indicator of quality in afforestation projects is whether they’re enabling those conditions to ensure that the carbon storage is as long-lived as possible.
They should have plans in place to ensure that as many of the trees planted as possible live until a natural death, meaning:
A project is additional when the carbon benefit is made in addition to what would have happened if the project didn’t issue carbon offset credits.
With afforestation projects, this particularly means proving that without the existence of the project the land would have been used for some other purpose which would not have resulted in carbon removal – typically it would have been agricultural land otherwise.
Carbon offset projects are paid for each carbon credit they sell, so they have an incentive to claim to be reducing more emissions or removing more carbon than they actually are.
That’s why it’s important that afforestation projects are transparent with their estimation methods, including:
Many carbon offset forestry projects also only issue their carbon offset credits after the trees have been growing for over 10 years (known as ex-post credits), when carbon removal can be measured and proven.
As we’ve mentioned already, it’s easy to get tree planting wrong. And that’s true of benefits beyond carbon emissions too – planting new trees can actually be harmful to wildlife and ecosystems if done wrong.
A particular issue to look out for with afforestation projects is ‘monoculture’ i.e. planting a single species of trees in an area. Monoculture forests lack the biodiversity of plants and animals that allow forests to thrive in a natural cycle – meaning that there are typically issues with poor soil, leading to high usage of fertilisers.
On the other hand, when done correctly, planting trees is hugely valuable for the environment in a wider sense. Afforestation projects should be heterogeneous (i.e. diverse, with multiple complementary species of trees), using species of trees native to the area.
When this happens, there are many environmental benefits beyond carbon, including:
Further, afforestation projects can also be hugely beneficial to local communities, particularly through their value as recreational spaces, as well as providing job opportunities – directly in the planting and maintaining the forest, as well as indirectly through tourism opportunities e.g. an ecotourism project at the Keo Seima forest in Cambodia brings an annual income of $14,000 to the local community.
Ackron Mixed is an afforestation project in Scotland which took a 40 hectare plot of land which was previously used for sheep grazing and planted trees to create a new forest. It has removed 1,880 tCO2e from the atmosphere since it began back in 2000. It's now managed by Treeconomy, using their monitoring technology to enhance the project's quality.
There are many markers of quality to be found in the Ackron Mixed project:
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