Carbon off-set

Forests in the US that generate the carbon offsets bought by Microsoft are on fire as summer blazes rage in North America. Corporate net-zero emission pledges rely on such projects to compensate for the carbon dioxide generated by companies that are unable to make sufficient cuts to their actual emissions.

In principle each offset represents a tonne of carbon (carbon off-set) that has been permanently removed from the atmosphere or avoided. Offsets generated by projects that plant or protect trees, which absorb carbon, are among the most popular. But forestry projects are vulnerable to wildfires, drought, and disease – permanent threats that are being exacerbated by global warming.

Elizabeth Willmott, Microsoft’s carbon programme manager, told attendees at an event “We’ve bought forest offsets that are now burning.” In Washington and Oregon, at least two forestry projects used by Microsoft are ablaze.

With some areas still burning, the extent of the damage is unknown. The offset programmes carry a “buffer” of credits that are not sold to any companies but are available to cover any shortfalls resulting from problems with a project.

What does it mean for Microsoft net-zero?

Microsoft bought a combined 240,000 carbon off-set from Klamath East and Klamath West last year. The tech giant was assessing how the disaster might affect how it buys offsets in future, Willmott said: “We don’t want this to force us to pull out of investing in nature-based solutions. Buyers must get really smart about what the risks are”.

Both the Klamath East and Colville projects are registered with the American Carbon Registry, and were approved by the California Air Resources Board to be used in the state’s carbon trading system. The American Carbon Registry said the California system’s buffer pool was “robust and diversified, with a volume of credits contributed to date of around 30m tons from 143 forestry projects in 29 states”.

The US emitted roughly 6.6bn metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2019.

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