Carbon offsets: a controversial tool that's helping to protect Maine's forests
Just over a decade ago, the Downeast Lakes Land Trust was in a money crunch.
The group wanted to add about 22,000 acres to its public forests around Grand Lake Stream, nearly doubling the size of a resource that’s popular with hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts. But the revenue it collects from timber harvesting wouldn’t cover the $19 million purchase, and fundraising had gotten difficult during the Great Recession.
So the land trust looked to another funding source: big polluters in California. To help meet new Golden State restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, companies could pay other organizations to grow trees.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
Within a couple years, the land trust had received $4 million for the sequestration of carbon in its forests, allowing it to complete the expansion by 2016.
President and CEO David Montague says the group might not have been able to acquire the land without the money from that sale — and in that case, he says it could have been sold to a company that would more aggressively remove its timber.
“It had about eight miles of shoreline, and [then the typical model would be] to sell that off for development for second homeowners,” he says. “So the landscape would look very different from how it does today.”
A controversial tool for forest conservation
A small but growing number of Maine groups — from timber companies and conservation organizations to the Passamaquoddy Tribe — have now done the same thing: they’ve set aside portions of their land and sold credits that require them to lock up a certain amount of carbon in the trees that cover it.
These offset projects are meant to tackle multiple aspects of the climate crisis.
If humans are to avoid the worst effects of global warming, there’s a growing recognition that forests such as Maine’s North Woods must remove more carbon from the atmosphere and that forest owners need better incentives to maximize their sequestration. That’s on top of the urgent need for companies and governments to rapidly move away from burning fossil fuels.
Supporters say that well-regulated offset markets make it cost-effective to pursue better forestry while giving polluters a way to compensate for any emissions that they can’t easily eliminate through efficiency and cleaner energy, such as the fuel that commercial airlines burn.
But offsets are a controversial tool for encouraging forest growth. Among other things, critics argue that projects can overstate how much carbon they’re offsetting and enable big corporations — including Shell Oil, Delta Airlines and Disney — to avoid the harder work of reducing their fossil fuel dependence.
What does a carbon offset project look like?
In general, Maine organizations that have set aside land for carbon offsets are harvesting some timber from it, rather than just letting it grow freely. But they differ from most commercial timber operations in how large their trees can grow before they’re cut.
In some cases, the forests have been conservatively harvested in the past so they already contain more timber mass than surrounding areas, and the owners can sell credits to maintain those levels for the length of the offsets.
In other cases, the groups have bought land that was previously cut more aggressively — for example, by companies that sell the wood for pulp and paper production, which are lower value uses that do little to keep sequestering carbon. To generate offset credits, the groups pledge to let the forests grow for a period of time, then strategically manage them.
Either way, the projects are meant to encourage trees to get bulkier than they would under standard commercial timber practices. The goal is to store more carbon in the standing forest, as well as in any higher-value lumber that's removed from the site and converted to housing, furniture and other uses.
Limited use in Maine so far
There are now more than a dozen carbon offset projects in various stages of development across Maine, according to public registries, but their impact has so far been limited.
Only 3.4% of Maine’s forestland — about 600,000 acres — is now being managed for offsets, according to Anew Climate, a company that helps develop those projects.
The projects are scattered across the state’s northernmost counties, with many in Washington, Aroostook, Piscataquis and Somerset counties. And few have generated credits so far.
A few other conservation groups have also sold offset credits, including the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Nature Conservancy.
To participate in the program, Downeast Lakes Land Trust worked with outside groups to calculate how much more carbon was stored on its lands than in the average commercially harvested forest, then agreed to keep managing the land for carbon storage over the next century. In 2013, it became one of the first groups to sell credits on California’s carbon offset market.
The group has now developed hiking trails, boat launches and campsites throughout its community forest and pursued a variety of projects meant to encourage fish and wildlife habitats. “We have a pretty conservative forest management structure,” Montague says. “Those are not things that a typical forest landowner in this area would go to the trouble of doing.”
Another of Maine’s early adopters was the Passamaquoddy Tribe, which has sold offset credits on the California market for some of the land that it holds across the North Woods.
The offsets have brought in tens in millions in revenue that have helped fund a variety of programs, including for treating opioid addiction, improving housing and providing groceries to tribal members during the COVID pandemic, according to Michael-Corey Hinton, an attorney for the tribe.
Timber companies have been slower to come around. The earliest was Baskahegan Co., a family-owned business which harvests wood from 150,000 acres in northern Washington County and started selling offset credits in 2018.
In general, groups that have sold offset credits have declined to identify the companies that bought them.
Why are they controversial?
Critics of carbon offsets have pointed to research that finds some projects overstate how much carbon they're removing from the atmosphere, in essence giving companies a pass to pollute more.
That might be because a landowner isn't managing their land that differently from how they would have without the offset credit, and thus the project isn’t actually storing additional carbon. It’s also possible that timber customers might just look to other markets to replace the wood that was closed off to harvesting — a concept known as leakage.
“Who’s going to produce that wood globally? Someone will,” says John Hagan, a Maine-based forest ecologist who runs the group Our Climate Common. “The atmosphere is global, not just sitting over New England in a closed, sealed box, so you need to be aware of the chain reaction of effects.”
Supporters say that well-run offset markets already account for such factors as leakage when calculating the carbon benefits of a project.
“These markets do have a real opportunity to be a tool for good work,” says Kyle Burdick, the woodlands manager at Baskahegan Co. “And they’ve been evolving since they launched them.”
Carbon offsets and Maine's own climate goals
In general, Maine has identified forests as a key part of the state’s response to climate change.
A recent report found that as of 2016, around 75% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions were sequestered by natural resources such as trees, and state officials are now working to develop incentives for landowners to improve the storage of carbon in their forests.
It remains to be seen how projects that sell carbon offsets to private corporations could complement — or compete with — state and regional efforts to encourage more forest growth.
Whoever is running those projects, Hagan says that they should take into account the latest research on which forestry practices lock up the most carbon.
He is now working with researchers at the University of Maine on a study that demonstrates how specific types of forest management — or silviculture — can promote healthy timber growth that increases carbon storage and prevents customers from leaking to other markets.
“Whether the carbon market pays for that silviculture, or the U.S. government pays for it, because it’s in the greater good of everyone to store more carbon,” he says, “the good news is that it looks like we could store more carbon, like 15 to 20% more than we are now, if we invested in these forest management practices."