On stage at TC Sessions: Climate 2022 this week, renowned climate modeling expert Dr. William Collins why he is highly skeptical about carbon offsets, and in particular tree-based offsets.
When asked whether offsets serve as a “jail-breaking card” for companies eager to show they care about the climate, Collins replied that offsets, “as far as we can tell, are a good feeling.” Tree-planting programs put on a pedestal by companies like United Airlines are “fool’s gold,” Collins said. “It’s actually impossible to check whether or not the stuff stays in the trees. Once you have a forest fire, it’s game over,” he added.
You may be embarrassed to hear that from Collins, who leads Berkeley Lab’s Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division and Carbon Negative Initiative. Collins was also the lead author of several IPCC assessments, one of which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
To be clear, forest conservation is critical, especially when such efforts are led by indigenous communities rather than colonial governments and corporations. However, the track record of credited forest conservation and mass planting initiatives is a different story. A 2019 ProPublica study found that “forest conservation carbon credits,” in particular, “could be worse than nothing,” echoing Collins’ concerns.
Along the same lines, Collins also pointed to forest conservation commitments enshrined in the Paris Agreement: “A third of the countries in the Paris Agreement are essentially saying, ‘We will not cut our forests’ [and that] is our most important contribution to making the planet greener.’” According to Collins, however, it is completely unclear what material benefits these commitments provide in terms of carbon sequestration.
“The estimates they have given for how much? [carbon] their forests vary by a factor of four across national borders,” Collins said, adding boldly, “that tells you they’re making up the numbers.”
In addition, some groups argue that there is not enough space for all the trees that companies want to plant.
Aside from trees, Collins did not go into detail about other types of carbon offset programs, such as programs that convert biomass into oil for underground storage (more on this here) and credits for removing carbon from the atmosphere. On the latter, Salesforce, Microsoft and Google recently pledged to spend $500 million on removing atmospheric carbon, although such technology is currently not widely proven.