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Forests Used as Carbon Offsets Are Going Up in Wildfire Flames

The wildfires in the American West are burning vast expanses of specially protected forests — those that are part of carbon-offset projects meant to counterbalance the carbon dioxide pollution being pumped into the atmosphere by human activity.

Carbon-offset programs, which are designed to fight climate change, typically pay landowners to manage their land in ways that store carbon. Usually, that means paying landowners to not chop down trees.

Wildfires, however, don’t respect those agreements.

An estimated 153,000 acres of forests that are part of California’s carbon-offset project have burned so far this summer, according to CarbonPlan, a nonprofit climate-research organization. Three projects have been affected. In Oregon, a quarter of the Klamath East project, or close to 100,000 acres, has burned in the Bootleg Fire since early July.

“The worst fire season in Western U.S. history is going on,” said Danny Cullenward, the policy director of CarbonPlan. “That story is just crashing headfirst into some of the big bets that policymakers and private companies have made about the role of forest carbon as a climate solution. What we are seeing is, a bunch of projects are on fire.”

Forests store carbon by pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and locking it away in tree trunks and other growth. When a tree burns, though, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

California’s carbon offset program works by paying landowners if they commit to managing their land for 100 years in ways that will store more carbon than they would have otherwise.

Companies that want to offset their own emissions of greenhouse gases can then buy credits that represent the additional carbon being stored in forests like these.

An official with the California Air Resources Board, which oversees the state’s carbon-offset program, declined to comment on CarbonPlan’s findings.

The program has stirred up controversy, including criticism that credits have been overvalued and that some landowners have taken advantage of the system by accepting payments in return for protecting forests that wouldn’t have been cut down. But experts say the wildfires have highlighted one of the main weaknesses in the program: the small size of the so-called buffer pool.

Buffer pool is a bureaucratic term for a simple idea: It’s an insurance policy against disasters like fires. In effect, carbon-offset projects also protect a small percentage of extra land so that if disaster strikes one project, that extra pool of land — with contributions from many different projects — can make up for losses.

But too many fires mean that the insurance policy might not be enough.

“If the current rate of fire loss continues, the buffer pool will not be sufficient — and that loss will get greater with climate change,” said Barbara Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

This month, Microsoft said offsets that the company had purchased were burning. BP also purchased offsets in a large project that is now burning, according to a report by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. (In an email, a BP official said the company doesn’t rely on carbon offsets to meet its emissions reduction targets.)

CarbonPlan’s estimates are based on maps of the projects enrolled in California’s cap-and-trade program overlaid with the active fire perimeters tracked by the federal government. Three additional carbon-offset projects are near large wildfires, according to CarbonPlan.

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