Are forest offsets good for the climate? Are they good for other reasons? In climate change mitigation portfolios, offsets allow industries and individuals to compensate for their own greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing emissions reductions elsewhere. But offsets may detract from needed mitigation if offset programs give credits for emissions reductions that would have happened anyway. To support design, deployment, and refinement of forest offset programs within mitigation portfolios, we evaluate California’s forest offset program, the first-ever legally enforceable offset program for existing forests. Our analysis of the state’s forest offset program explores two fundamental questions (1) Additionality—Can forest offsets effectively contribute to climate change mitigation? And (2) Co-benefits—Do they provide further co-benefits for other objectives?
We reviewed all public project documents in California’s forest offset program and organized a database to create a comprehensive and, where possible, quantitative, characterization of the forest offset projects. Data included 49 variables for each project including ownership, risk rating, forest inventory, logging data, certification and specific co-benefits.
We find that California’s forest offset program, as a small portion of the California’s mitigation portfolio, does not inhibit overall emissions reductions. Further, the program advances stringent additionality of emissions reductions through multiple mechanisms. These include an assessment of participating forest ownership, logging activities, project risk metrics, and required project feasibility tests. Finally, mitigation through forest offsets can yield a suite of important conservation co-benefits. Through the forest offset program, more than 349,000 hectares of forest land are under sustainable forest management.
The current forest offset credits are distributed among 39 forest offset projects that have been operating for an average of 7 years. Projects, located over much of the contiguous US, have an average size of 9,000 hectares. On average, each project has been credited 650,000 tCO2e over its life to date. Not weighting for project area, per-project average credits are 96 tCO2e/ha for the first year of project operations, and 27 tCO2e/ha for the second. Lessons from this pool of forest offset projects can inform offset programs increasingly under development around the world.