In our last article, we took a dive into carbon offsets—specifically offsets generated from renewable energy and industry. We’re back at it again, digging deep into offset projects focused on nature, energy efficiency, and community development. In this article, we’ll explore how these offsets are generated and the benefits they provide to people and the environment.
Land use carbon offsets are generated from projects that draw carbon out of the air and into the ground or plants. They can also be generated by projects that prevent carbon emissions from escaping soil and forests.
Destructive land use accounts for 23 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Stopping land destruction and implementing more climate-friendly land use practices are essential to curtailing global warming.
But it’s not as simple as growing more trees or building healthier soils. Nature-based offsets require rigorous monitoring and number-crunching, and due to the complicated intersectionality of natural systems and the way a warming planet is changing the environment, it’s hard to account for massive and unexpected changes like wildfires and natural disasters. This makes nature-based solutions costly and not always effective.
Exemplary biosequestration projects address multiple problems at once: They can sequester and store carbon, protect watersheds, empower local populations, and protect biodiversity. But there are some bad actors out there in the biosequestration space, and low-quality projects may result in diminished biodiversity, displacement of local populations, disregard for community stakeholders, and even net loss of carbon stocks
Still, nature-based offset projects are essential to limiting warming on earth. One study estimates that land-based solutions such as forestry and regenerative farming could provide 37 percent of the mitigation we need to lock in a stable climate by 2030.
Let’s sink some roots into the soil of nature-based offset projects.
Forestry offset projects fall into three camps:
- Afforestation/reforestation. These projects plant trees and recreate forests to offset CO2. Afforestation/reforestation projects offer the best forestry-based offsets because they’re more easily measured, permanent, and additional.
- Avoided conversion (or forest conservation). These projects prevent tree loss by permanently protecting existing forests and increasing carbon stocks.
Improved forest management. These projects involve forest management activities resulting in higher carbon sequestration and storage than business-as-usual forestry. Improved forest management may still allow timber harvest.
Biological sequestration is nature’s way of regulating carbon. It absorbs CO2 emissions through the growth of vegetation, a process which inhales carbon and exhales oxygen. Much of this carbon is stored long term in plant tissue and organic materials like leaves and fruits. What’s not durably stored in plants is usually returned to the soil. The benefits of biological sequestration are huge: Trees absorb a net 7.6 billion tons of CO2 every year, 1.5 times more than annual U.S. emissions.
But forests are in trouble. We've lost nearly 4 million square miles of global forests since the beginning of the 20th century. In the past 25 years alone, the world has lost enough forest to cover the country of South Africa.
The earth could support another 2.2 billion acres of forest, a quarter more than what we have now. This imaginary forest could sequester an additional 200 gigatons of carbon, enough to offset about 40 percent of all emissions the U.S. has produced since 1850. In the U.S., our forests sequester about 16 percent of the country’s annual emissions.
There’s a lot of potential in planting new forests and protecting what we already have. Between preserving standing forests and planting new ones, forestry can reduce or sequester up to 158 gigatons of additional CO2 over the next 30 years.
Agriculture produces over ten percent of the United States’ annual emissions. But what if ag could be a source for both healthy food and a healthy climate? That’s the goal of regenerative agriculture techniques.
Regenerative agriculture is a broad swath of farming practices with one common goal: Put carbon back in the soil. Replacing conventional agriculture with regenerative practices could avoid and remove nearly 70 gigatons of CO2 by 2050, the equivalent of over ten years of the United States’ total emissions.
The planet’s soil stores over three times the amount of carbon than is currently in the atmosphere. This carbon stays relatively stable, helping plants to grow, keep soil intact, control and purify water, and keep planet-warming gasses beneath the ground.
Our current depletion of soil creates a vicious negative feedback loop: Carbon trapped in the ground leaches into the air, more warming occurs, the land is further depleted, and more carbon is emitted. Regenerative farming helps reverse this. Practices like using organic manures, cover cropping, no-till, mulching, and rotational grazing can help take carbon out of the air and build healthy, resilient food systems. The soil can then be measured for carbon uptake and compared with baseline measurements to determine how much carbon has been sequestered. These amounts are then sold as offsets.
Land Use Examples
Northern Plains Regenerative Grazing Project
A consortium of ranches in Montanna is utilizing the power of grazing to remove GHGs and build healthy soils. The Northern Plains Regenerative Grazing project implements sustainable grazing and grassland management on over 33,000 acres. Instead of allowing unrestricted grazing, participants implement rotational grazing patterns allowing perennial grasses to grow and remove carbon.
How much carbon can grass remove, you ask? This specific project draws down 32,514 tons every year.
Winston Creek Forest Carbon Project
At the foothills of Mt. Rainier in Washington state lies the Winston Creek Forest Carbon Project, a sprawling 10,000 acre stand of majestic Douglas fir sucking in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen.
But it wasn’t always like this. Just a few short decades ago, the area suffered unsustainable industrial clearcutting. The forest is now managed for sustainable timber harvests and carbon sequestration. The Winston Creek Forest Carbon Project removes carbon by maintaining existing forest cover and planting more trees than are cut down, growing substantially more biomass than will be harvested over the project period.
By 2036, Winston Creek is expected to remove 853,035 metric tons of CO2 per acre. Each year, the carbon sequestered by each acre is quantified by third party analysts and made available as offsets. All the while, the project is producing co-benefits of clean air, noise and pollution reduction, soil stabilization, and habitat for species like the endangered Spotted Owl.
Other offset project types
Helping people live more efficient, healthier lives can help remove and reduce carbon, too. And guess what else? Ding ding ding! You guessed it: these activities can produce carbon offsets. Projects like community-wide energy efficiency upgrades help avoid substantial energy-related emissions. Equipping families with cleaner burning cook stoves means fewer carbon emissions from burning coal and wood, while also saving trees from being cut down for fuel. All of these measures can be quantified and sold as carbon offsets, while doing good for the people in the communities where the projects are rolled out.
Improved Cookstoves in Angola in Africa
A project in Angola is providing 100,000 high-efficiency rocket cookstoves to households across the country, replacing inefficient and unhealthy conventional cooktops. The project is expected to avoid over 410,000 tons of CO2 annually thanks to more efficient burning and fewer trees cut down for fuel. The project also reduces hazards resulting from indoor smoke pollution, and women and children will spend less time gathering firewood.
Low-income Housing Efficiency Upgrades
Older low-income housing isn’t always well-planned, especially in terms of energy efficiency. One project in Maine helped make energy efficiency and weatherization improvements in single and multi-family buildings. Older mobile homes were replaced with ENERGY STAR®-rated manufactured dwellings, and older permanent buildings received serious efficiency upgrades. The project helped low-income individuals live more comfortably, more affordably, and avoided the weight of 11,000 cars in CO2 emissions each year.
In this series of articles, we explored different types of carbon offset projects. From renewable energy to trees, there are a variety of ways to reduce and remove emissions. Offset projects often produce co-benefits in addition to removing/avoiding carbon: Planting trees improves water quality, reduces erosion, and helps cool cities, and installing energy efficient appliances helps homeowners live more comfortably and save money.
But offsets are just one piece of the puzzle. They are not a solution for decarbonizing everyday life, nor a get-out-of-jail-free card to keep emitting pollution that we shouldn’t be pumping into the atmosphere in the first place. But combined with reducing emissions, carbon offset projects can remove and avoid an enormous amount of harmful greenhouse gasses while building a world that’s better for people and the planet.
It’s important to do what you can on a personal and systems level to reduce emissions. What’s left, offset with Neutral. Your investment in Neutral’s quality offset projects helps scale third-party verified carbon removal and avoidance projects that will be essential in helping society move away from fossil fuels and remove the carbon we’ve emitted.