Lingxi Chenyang: Carbon offsets should also make communities more resilient to climate change

Planting trees can help neighborhoods with climate resilience.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, center, is joined by the city’s urban forestry team and third graders from Meadowlark Elementary to plant the 1,000th west-side tree of the year on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.

John Oliver, host of the popular show Last Week Tonight, has claimed Apple and other “giant corporations” are buying carbon offsets to “green things up.” Offsets essentially let polluters neutralize their emissions by paying someone else to remove carbon dioxide, usually by planting trees or protecting forests.

“The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now higher than ever in human history” but, Oliver warned, “we cannot offset our way out of climate change.”

Oliver and many other critics of offsets are overlooking a critical opportunity: Carbon offsets can also make communities more resilient to climate change.

We do need to decarbonize the economy quickly and aggressively to avoid the worst-case scenarios associated with climate change. But carbon dioxide lasts for centuries, if not millennia, in the atmosphere. The next few generations will need to adapt to unavoidable climate changes before seeing any benefits from efforts taken now. That means more record-breaking droughts in the West, devastating hurricanes in Florida and Puerto Rico, and blackout-inducing cold snaps like we’ve experienced this winter, which have led to the deaths of more than 30 people across multiple states.

Poor, Indigenous and minority communities will suffer the brunt of these harms in the United States. Developing countries will suffer the burden globally. Carbon offsets intentionally aimed at boosting community resiliency could help reduce the impact now, as well as into the future.

Take mangrove trees. Mangroves grow along warm coastlines and store three times more carbon than rainforests per acre. They prevented $1.5 billion in property damage in Florida during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Or fruit and nut trees. Planted on just 10% of farmland in the U.S., these trees could store more than 30% of national emissions, according to a 2012 study by researchers from the University of Missouri. They also protect crops against heat waves and floods, while potentially giving farmers a backup revenue source during bad crop seasons.

Urban trees cool neighborhoods during dangerous heat waves, saving lives. Low-income neighborhood blocks with fewer trees can feel up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than high-income blocks with more trees in the same city. The list goes on.

But few of these resilient forestry practices are funded by offset payments. Instead, polluters buy cheap offsets like pine tree plantations in Uganda. Why? The problem isn’t carbon offsets or market solutions. The problem is that offsets are designed narrowly for decarbonization, not climate resilience.

The debate about the best approach to carbon offsets is especially important now. Countries, states, cities and companies covering 91% of the global economy have recently pledged to go net-zero on carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. This usually involves a combination of reducing emissions and buying offsets. As a result, the experts at McKinsey Sustainability estimate that $50 billion of offsets might be sold by 2030, up from just $2 billion in 2021. That’s billions of dollars from polluters to carbon projects, every year, over the multiple decades needed to decarbonize the economy.

The good news is governments and companies are starting to see carbon offsets as more than decarbonization. Take the state of Washington, which passed a climate bill in 2021 that encourages polluters to buy offsets from federally recognized tribes. Indigenous groups can lead the way in making carbon offsets resilient. A 2018 study found that forests managed by the Ojibwe and Menominee tribes in Wisconsin were more carbon dense, diverse and pest-resilient than neighboring nontribal forests. This is because tribal groups manage forests for human and forest health rather than any single goal.

Washington may have taken a page from California, which helped the Yurok Tribe of Northern California sell millions of dollars of carbon offsets. They implemented traditional practices like prescribed burns, which helps food and medicinal plants grow and makes forests more resilient to wildfires. The Yurok then used the carbon revenue to buy back almost 60,000 acres of ancestral land.

Minneapolis offers another example. The state sells carbon offsets to local corporations to pay for its urban forestry program. After a local property tax expired, the city decided to make businesses, instead of the public, pay for the costs of adaptation. Minneapolis will plant more trees in high-poverty areas with low tree cover, where they will have the most impact.

Net-zero is a better response to the climate crisis than denial and inaction. We also need to embrace the idea that offsets can be used not only for decarbonization but for making our communities climate resilient. We need to fix offsets, not just continue to dismiss them as evil scams.

Lingxi Chenyang

Lingxi Chenyang is an associate professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, where her research focuses on legal issues involving climate change, the environment and property.