If a tree (doesn’t) fall in the forest, can a company really offset its emissions?

August 19, 2021, 11:43 AM UTC

Hello from London. This is Katherine, filling in for Alan.

This morning, a piece from the Wall Street Journal caught my eye, on carbon offsets in Michigan. The offsets are sold for preserving trees that are already standing, in a deal between the state, which owns the land, and the local utility.

The state says the funds will largely be used to plant new trees, and that the money makes it more valuable to keep the trees in the ground rather than selling the most profitable varieties—which have been ever more in demand due to a turbo-charged market for lumber, as tracked by Fortune’s own data guru Lance Lambert. It’s part of a growing market for what’s called “voluntary offsets” which BP, for one, thinks will become a market it can trade like it currently does oil and gas.

Making the trees more valuable if they stay in the ground is, from a carbon and markets perspective, good. But it hints at a series of recurring, and high stakes, questions in the world of offsets, and therefore in the world of carbon accounting. Can you really measure avoided deforestation, and call it an offset for fossil fuels that are being burned right now? In daily terms: if taking this reusable water bottle with me to work saved me from buying, say, five bottles of water this week . . . do I get to drive my car ten extra miles, carbon free, and come out even?

Before you email me to tell me that I can’t realistically claim that the math behind the above scenario works out (based on your calculations of carbon emitted when driving, and emissions per bottle, and steel versus plastic, and whether the bottles would have been recycled…), that’s kind of my point, too. The vast confusion behind how to standardize carbon accounting leaves a million questions unanswered, with companies essentially filling in the gaps as they go. In one of the more bizarre and telling examples, Bloomberg recently tracked down a series of forest projects that traders at TotalEnergies found to offset a tanker of LNG.

In an example from my own life, I recently ate a carbon neutral (vegan) burger.

Efforts to standardize ESG—and offsetting, and what constitutes greenwashing—are coming left, right, and center, including measures that emerged this spring from the EU. But those measures, which have produced reams of complicated paperwork, have themselves bred confusion as companies try to figure out what to disclose, and why.

That’s not to say that market incentives to protect forests aren’t worthwhile. But many climate experts say that, while protecting carbon sinks is a crucial part of limiting temperature rise, it’s simply not a replacement. As the IPCC report last week reminded us, the very pressing task at hand here is for governments, and companies, to reduce absolute emissions, not to play endless games of carbon accounting cancel-out.

Other news below.

Katherine Dunn



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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by Katherine Dunn. 

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