Afforestation Carbon Offsets Explained: All You Need to Know

Afforestation Carbon Offsets Explained: All You Need to Know

By
Grace Smoot

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It is widely known that trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), which helps to regulate our climate. In the scope of carbon offsets, afforestation (planting trees) could play a role in lowering the global average concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere, which now registers at over 400 parts per million. So, we had to ask: What are afforestation carbon offsets really, and could they help us mitigate climate change?

Afforestation carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that reduce CO2 emissions by planting trees in areas not recently forested. They are cost-effective and reinforce our carbon sinks; however, they can lack permanence and negatively alter existing ecosystems if not sited properly.

Keep reading to find out all about what afforestation carbon offsets are, how they work, how effective and efficient they are, what their pros and cons are, and what the best ones are. At the end of the article, we’ll also share with you how afforestation carbon offsets can help mitigate climate change and what better alternatives to them are. 

The Big Picture of Afforestation Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets play an important role in mitigating the effects of global climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions beyond what we each can achieve through individual actions. Afforestation carbon offsets are a specific type of tree planting carbon offset that establishes new forests on lands not recently forested.

What are afforestation carbon offsetsAfforestation carbon offsets are a specific type of tree planting carbon offset that focuses on land that has not recently been covered with forest (i.e., establishing new forests on lands not recently forested).
How do afforestation carbon offsets workAfforestation projects reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by increasing the number of trees on the planet, which absorb CO2 as they grow and mature.
How effective and efficient are afforestation carbon offsetsAfforestation offsets are effective because they reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinks; however, they often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.
Afforestation offsets are efficient because they are relatively cost-effective and continue to avoid CO2 emissions after their project life span; however, they are also less efficient than restoring or protecting already existing forests.
What are the 4 pros of afforestation carbon offsetsAfforestation offsets reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinks
Afforestation offsets are relatively cost-effective
Afforestation offsets help maintain the water cycle
Afforestation offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually
What are the 4 cons of afforestation carbon offsetsAfforestation offsets often lack permanence
Afforestation offsets do not reduce carbon emissions immediately
Afforestation offsets can negatively alter previously established ecosystems
Afforestation offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing
What are the best afforestation carbon offsetsThe best afforestation carbon offsets are offered by the Arbor Day Foundation, Climate Impact Partners, and WeForest, that all plant trees on degraded lands globally. In addition, Reforest’Action and Ecologi restore degraded pastures and grasslands in South Africa, Senegal, and Uruguay.
How can afforestation carbon offsets help mitigate climate changeAfforestation offsets specifically help mitigate climate change because they plant more trees, and trees remove CO2 from the air as they grow. By increasing the number of trees on our planet, we increase the amount of carbon they are capable of storing.

What Are Afforestation Carbon Offsets

Afforestation carbon offsets are a specific type of tree planting carbon offset that focuses on planting trees on lands that have not recently been covered with forest (i.e., establishing new forests on lands not recently forested).

Planting trees can be classified in two ways, either as reforestation or afforestation. Afforestation carbon offsets are a specific type of tree planting carbon offset that focuses on planting trees on lands that have not recently been covered with forest (i.e., establishing new forests on lands not recently forested). Conversely, reforestation focuses on converting recently non-forested land back into forested land.

“Afforestation: the act or process of establishing a forest especially on land not previously forested)”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Afforestation is an example of biological carbon sequestration, or the storage of carbon in vegetation (forests), soils, and oceans, which are commonly referred to as our carbon sinks. Afforestation carbon offsets can help combat deforestation, which is the main threat to our forests and occurs at approximately 10 million hectares (~25 million acres) per year. 

Illustration of deforestation and forest loss since the last ice age
Our World in Data: Deforestation and Forest Loss

In total, our planet has lost more than 1/3 of its forest since the last ice age, which occurred about 2.6 million years ago. 

How Do Afforestation Carbon Offsets Work

Afforestation carbon offsets fund projects that reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by increasing the number of trees on the planet, which absorb CO2 as they grow and mature. This bolsters our terrestrial carbon sinks and allows for increased atmospheric CO2 absorption.

Afforestation projects reduce CO2 emissions by increasing the number of trees on the planet, which absorb CO2 as they grow and mature. A typical tree can absorb anywhere from 10-40kg (22-88 pounds) of CO2 per year

Planting trees is one of the easiest and most meaningful ways you can help preserve the environment and combat global climate change. Trees not only act as one of our largest carbon sinks, they also provide numerous benefits in addition to climate change mitigation.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the big picture of afforestation offsets? Check out the full article here: “What Are Afforestation Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work? The Big Picture”

How Effective and Efficient Are Afforestation Carbon Offsets

In terms of effectiveness, afforestation carbon offsets mitigate climate change because they reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinks; however, they often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

In terms of efficiency, afforestation carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective and can continue to avoid CO2 emissions after their project life span; however, they are also less efficient than restoring or protecting already existing forests.

Afforestation carbon offsets are effective at mitigating climate change because they reinforce one of our largest carbon sinks capable of absorbing a net 7.6 bt of CO2 per year.

However, afforestation carbon offsets can also lack effectiveness because they:

Afforestation carbon offsets are efficient at reducing CO2 emissions because they:

  • Are relatively cost-effective when compared to other methods of carbon emission reduction
  • Can continue to reduce carbon emissions long after the trees have been planted.

However, afforestation carbon offsets can also lack efficiency because they are more time and cost intensive than protecting or restoring previously existing forests.

Afforestation carbon offsets also do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing. This occurs when emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, and the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not. This is why we should first reduce our emissions before relying on offsets.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about how effective and efficient afforestation carbon offsets are? Check out the full article here: “How Effective and Efficient Are Afforestation Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts”

What Are The 4 Pros and 4 Cons of Afforestation Carbon Offsets

Afforestation carbon offsets reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinks, are relatively cost-effective, help maintain the water cycle, and can help offset carbon emissions that can’t be reduced otherwise. 

However, afforestation offsets also often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, can negatively impact previously established ecosystems, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the pros and cons of afforestation offsets? Check out the full article here: “Afforestation Carbon Offsets: All Pros and Cons Explained”

What Are the 4 Pros of Afforestation Carbon Offsets

Afforestation carbon offsets have various pros that make them effective at absorbing carbon from our atmosphere.

4 Pros of Afforestation Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Afforestation offsets reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinksForests act as a giant carbon sink capable of absorbing a net 7.6 bt of CO2 per year and storing it in their leaves, trunks, roots, and surrounding soil.
#2: Afforestation offsets are relatively cost-effectiveAfforestation carbon offsets themselves are typically more cost-effective than other categories of carbon offsets. For example, afforestation offsets from leading providers (e.g., The Arbor Day Foundation, Reforest’Action, Ecologi) cost less than $50 per ton of CO2 offset. 
#3: Afforestation offsets help maintain the water cycleTrees capture, store, and use rainfall which aids in maintaining water quality and regulating the natural water cycle. When it rains, trees slow down the flow of water by absorbing it into the ground. This filters pollution and reduces flooding risks.
#4: Afforestation offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individuallyAfforestation carbon offsets allow us to reduce emissions from activities where sustainable alternatives are not yet widely available. 

What Are the 4 Cons of Afforestation Carbon Offsets

Understanding the drawbacks of afforestation carbon offsets is important when implementing this strategy on a large scale in order to mitigate climate change.

4 Cons of Afforestation Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Afforestation offsets often lack permanenceAfforestation offsets often lack permanence because they are reversible. Trees die naturally, afforestation can introduce invasive species, and environmental disasters such as floods, fires, changes in land use, and climate change itself can negate any permanence.
#2: Afforestation offsets do not reduce carbon emissions immediatelyCarbon emission reductions are delayed when you plant new forests because you have to wait around 20 years for the trees to reach maturity before they can begin to reduce significant amounts of carbon emissions.
#3: Afforestation offsets can negatively alter previously established ecosystemsNot all ecosystems are conducive to afforestation. Afforestation can introduce invasive species, reduce biodiversity, and alter the ecosystem’s natural balance if not planned properly.
#4: Afforestation offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashingIf emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, this could lead to greenwashing, when the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not. 

How Could you Offset Your Own Carbon Footprint With Afforestation Carbon Offsets

The market for carbon offsets was small in the year 2000, but by 2010 it had already grown to represent nearly $10 billion worldwide. The voluntary carbon offset market (VCM) is where everyday consumers can purchase carbon offsets to offset their carbon emissions, and the Ecosystem Marketplace predicts the VCM can grow to $50B by the year 2050

Afforestation carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective, and planting trees is one of the simplest ways you can contribute to the fight against climate change. Below are our favorite afforestation offsets.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the best afforestation carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Best Carbon Offsets for Afforestation (Complete 2024 List)”
Afforestation Carbon Offset CompanyQuick Facts
The Arbor Day FoundationAbout: Carbon offset purchases support afforestation (and reforestation) projects in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (US), Nicaragua, and Peru.
Costs: $40 per 1,000kg of CO2
Climate Impact PartnersAbout: Carbon offset purchases support afforestation projects in China and Guatemala. 
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
WeForestAbout: Carbon offset purchases support 5 projects under the Great Green Wall program, which plants trees across the width of Africa.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
Reforest’ActionAbout: Carbon offset purchases support the planting of trees on degraded pastures in Kuzuko (South Africa) project.
Costs: $20 per 1,000kg of CO2
EcologiAbout: Carbon offset purchases support afforestation projects including restoring degraded land in Senegal and planting forest plantations on degraded grasslands in Uruguay.
Costs: $6.04 per 1,000kg of CO2
One Tree PlantedAbout: Carbon offset purchases support afforestation projects including restoring degraded land in Iceland.
Costs: $20 per 1,000kg of CO2
CarbonfundAbout: Carbon offset purchases support afforestation projects including the Panama reforestation project.
Costs: $16.25-$17.16 per 1,000kg of CO2 for individuals, $390-$1,560 per year for small businesses, determined after initial contact for large businesses
myclimateAbout: Carbon offset purchases support afforestation projects including community reforestation in Nicaragua.
Costs: $23-$30 per 1,000kg of CO2
WrenAbout: Carbon offset purchases support their community tree planting project, an afforestation (and reforestation) project that pays farmers in East Africa to plant trees on farmland.
Costs: $23 per 1,000kg of CO2
TerrapassAbout: Carbon offset purchases support the Québec afforestation (and reforestation) project.
Costs: $16.51-$17.63 per 1,000kg of CO2

How Can Afforestation Carbon Offsets Help Mitigate Climate Change

Climate change is a severe and long-term consequence of fossil fuel combustion. Afforestation carbon offsets can help mitigate climate change because the more trees we plant, the more CO2 they can absorb from our atmosphere. Carbon in our atmosphere can, if left untreated, remain there for tens of thousands of years and exacerbate the negative effects of climate change.

How is Climate Change Defined

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term global impact of fossil fuel combustion. Every year, approximately 33 billion tons (bt) of CO2 are emitted from burning fossil fuels. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2

“Climate change: changes in the earth’s weather, including changes in temperature, wind patterns and rainfall, especially the increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere that is caused by the increase of particular gasses, especially carbon dioxide.”

Oxford Dictionary

Atmospheric CO2 fuels climate change, which results in global warming. When CO2 and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, it traps the heat and acts as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years. 

As outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we must cut current GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050

How Do Carbon Offsets Generally Help Mitigate Climate Change

Levels of carbon in our atmosphere that cause climate change have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. The global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million. Carbon offsets can help prevent these levels from increasing even more.

When you hear the words “carbon offset”, think about the term “compensation”. Essentially, carbon offsets are reductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere

Carbon offsets that meet key criteria and verified project standards, are additional and permanent, and are a part of projects that are carried out until the end of their lifespan have the best chance of reducing carbon emissions and therefore reducing climate change. 

When we offset CO2 we also slow the rate of global temperature rise, which in turn minimizes the effects of climate change. 

How Do Afforestation Carbon Offsets Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

Afforestation offsets specifically help mitigate climate change because they plant more trees, and trees remove CO2 from the air as they grow. By increasing the number of trees on our planet, we increase the amount of carbon they are capable of storing. The more carbon our forests can sequester, the less carbon there is in our atmosphere. And because higher levels of carbon exacerbate global warming, less is better.

What Are Better Alternatives to Afforestation Carbon Offsets

If used correctly, afforestation carbon offsets can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions. They have the potential to instigate meaningful environmental change and begin to reverse some of the effects of climate change. 

However, we can’t let this method be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Afforestation carbon offsets must be used in conjunction with direct carbon reduction measures because planting trees alone will not reduce CO2 levels enough in the short term to meet 2030 net-zero targets. 

These reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household carbon footprint:

Reduce your travel carbon footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle carbon footprint:

  • Switch to renewable energy sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global carbon emissions and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs means fewer carbon emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

Because afforestation offsets are an indirect way and not a direct way of reducing emissions, they alone will not be enough to reduce global carbon emissions significantly. Direct measures of emission reductions, such as reducing individual energy use and consumption, are better alternatives to afforestation offsets. 

Related: Are you interested in learning why reducing your carbon footprint is so important? Check it out in this article here: “4 Main Reasons Why Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Is Important”

Final Thoughts

Afforestation (tree planting) carbon offsets help reduce carbon emissions by planting trees in areas not recently forested, which then absorb atmospheric CO2 as they grow. They are relatively cost-effective and reinforce our carbon sinks; however, they often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, and can negatively alter previously established ecosystems if not planned and sited properly.

The top afforestation companies support third-party verified offset projects that plant trees around the globe. But although afforestation offsets can instigate meaningful change, they should not be seen as the only solution to climate change. They are effective at reducing CO2 in the short term, but in the long term, they fail to reduce CO2 enough. 

When used in conjunction with direct CO2 reduction measures, carbon offsetting can be much more effective. We should reduce our own carbon footprint as much as possible first, and only then choose the most effective carbon offsets.

Stay impactful,

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