Afforestation Carbon Offsets: All 4 Pros and 4 Cons Explained

Afforestation Carbon Offsets: All 4 Pros and 4 Cons Explained

By
Grace Smoot

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Deforestation is a major threat to our forests, and one way to combat this is by planting new trees. Afforestation carbon offset projects plant trees in areas that have not recently been forested, helping to increase overall carbon storage capacity and reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. So, we had to ask: What are the pros and cons of afforestation carbon offsets?

Afforestation carbon offsets reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinks, are relatively cost-effective, and help maintain the water cycle; however, they also often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, and can negatively impact previously established ecosystems.

Keep reading to find out all about what the pros and cons of afforestation carbon offsets are, how you can offset your carbon footprint with them, how they can mitigate climate change, and what better alternatives to afforestation carbon offsets are. 

The Big Picture of Afforestation Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are reductions in carbon emissions that are used to compensate for carbon emissions occurring elsewhere. They are measured in tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms on what is known as the global carbon offset market. 

“Carbon Offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by reforestation”

Oxford Dictionary

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. 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.

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

Planting trees is one of the simplest 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.

Pros of Afforestation Carbon OffsetsCons of Afforestation Carbon Offsets
Afforestation offsets reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinksAfforestation offsets often lack permanence
Afforestation offsets are relatively cost-effectiveAfforestation offsets do not reduce carbon emissions immediately
Afforestation offsets help maintain the water cycleAfforestation offsets can negatively alter previously established ecosystems
Afforestation offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individuallyAfforestation offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing
Related: Are you interested in learning more about the big picture of afforestation offsets? Check it out in this article here: “What Are Afforestation Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work? The Big Picture”

What Are 4 Pros 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. 

Pro #1: Afforestation Carbon Offsets Reinforce Our Terrestrial Carbon Sinks

Afforestation carbon offsets reinforce forests, which are one of our largest terrestrial carbon sinks.

Afforestation Carbon Offset Pro #1

Forests can absorb some of the roughly 33 billion tons (bt) of CO2 that we emit every year from burning fossil fuels. This makes forests one of our biggest carbon sinks, or carbon reservoirs.

“Carbon Sink: an area of forest that is large enough to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere and therefore to reduce the effect of global warming”

Cambridge Dictionary

China, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, and Turkey have historically led the afforestation effort. Together, they have planted 1.3 million hectares of forests, with China alone contributing 1 million hectares. China has increased its forest cover from 12% to almost 22% since the birth of its Great Green Wall afforestation campaign in 1978. 

Illustration of annual afforestation in 2015
Our World in Data: Annual Afforestation

Our forests absorbed over 15.6 bt of CO2 each year from 2001-2019, compared to the approximately 8.1 bt of CO2 released via deforestation, fires, and other disturbances. Still, this means that globally, forests act as a carbon sink capable of absorbing a net 7.6 bt of CO2 per year.

Trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere to produce oxygen via photosynthesis, a process that complements life on earth which exhales CO2 when breathing. More specifically, trees absorb carbon into their leaves, trunks, roots, and surrounding soil.

In short, afforestation reinforces forests, which are one of our biggest carbon sinks capable of absorbing billions of metric tons of CO2 every year. 

Pro #2: Afforestation Carbon Offsets Are Relatively Cost-Effective 

Afforestation carbon offsets bolster forest communities which play a crucial role in the water cycle.

Afforestation Carbon Offset Pro #2

In general, combating deforestation is an expensive process. But coupling afforestation with carbon offsets could help finance this process, especially since afforestation carbon offsets themselves are typically more cost-effective than some other categories of carbon offsets. 

Afforestation projects have a global average carbon cost of approximately $34-$57 per ton of CO2, which is higher than that of reforestation projects ($13-$24 per ton of CO2) but still low when compared to other methods. 

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. Compare this to direct carbon capture offsets which can cost anywhere from $100-$1,200 per ton of CO2

In short, afforestation carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective when compared to other methods of carbon emission reduction.

Pro #3: Afforestation Carbon Offsets Help Maintain the Water Cycle 

Afforestation carbon offsets bolster forest communities which play a crucial role in the water cycle.

Afforestation Carbon Offset Pro #3

Trees 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. If forests are cut down, their ability to absorb rainfall, slow down water, and recycle water is diminished. And this could lead to droughts, floods, famine, or disease.

Also, forests store a large amount of water. For example, the Amazon Basin alone stores one-fifth of the world’s freshwater. More than 50% of the precipitation that strikes a rainforest is returned to the atmosphere via evapotranspiration, and the clouds created from this process can travel around the world, providing precipitation to vast regions. 

In short, afforestation offsets increase the number of trees that can maintain water quality and regulate the natural water cycle.

Pro #4: Afforestation Carbon Offsets Can Help Offset Carbon Emissions That Can’t Be Reduced Otherwise

Afforestation offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.

Afforestation Carbon Offset Pro #4

We already have governmental-level policies in place to reduce carbon emissions, but carbon offsets allow us to reduce emissions from activities where sustainable alternatives are not yet widely available. 

Carbon offsets are designed for situations where your emissions are impossible to reduce. For example, we can only do so much to reduce our individual carbon footprints. Using public transportation, washing with cold water, and switching from single-use to sustainable products lowers our carbon footprint, but it does not eliminate them completely. This is where afforestation offsets come into play, to reduce carbon emissions in other areas as compensation for the remainder of our carbon emissions.

In short, afforestation offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.

What Are 4 Cons of Afforestation Carbon Offsets

Afforestation offsets 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.

Con #1: Afforestation Carbon Offsets Often Lack Permanence

Afforestation offsets lack permanence because they are reversible, nature-based solutions.

Afforestation Carbon Offset Con #1

Afforestation carbon offset projects also must be permanent, in the sense that there must be a full guarantee against reversals of carbon emission for the foreseeable future. Once a tree is planted, it should never be removed in order to guarantee permanence. 

But nature-based solutions, such as afforestation, can lack permanence because they are reversible. Rather than storing the carbon in permanent reservoirs (i.e., underground in rock formations), carbon is stored in biomass (trees). 

Trees die naturally, and environmental disasters such as floods, fires, changes in land use, and climate change itself can negate any permanence. And for example, most of the trees planted during China’s Great Green Wall afforestation program were dead or dying due to an invasive species infestation that negated permanence.

In short, nature-based solutions, such as afforestation efforts, lack permanence because they are reversible.

Con #2: Afforestation Carbon Offsets Do Not Reduce Carbon Emissions Immediately

Afforestation carbon offsets do not reduce carbon emissions immediately because of the time needed to plant trees and for them to reach maturity.

Afforestation Carbon Offset Con #2

Carbon emission reductions are delayed when you plant new forests because you have to wait for the trees to reach maturity before they can begin to reduce carbon emissions at a steady rate. All trees mature at different rates, but a typical hardwood tree takes around 20 years to reach maturity

Although they can absorb carbon as soon as they are planted, it can take decades until a tree is able to absorb the average 10-40kg (22-88 pounds) of CO2 per year. This means we must also wait decades after planting the tree to begin to reap most of the environmental benefits. 

Creating new forests is also more time intensive than protecting existing forests because finding suitable land and physically planting the trees to create a new forest takes time. Also, there is always the risk of, e.g., droughts, wildfires, tree diseases, and deforestation wiping out newly planted trees, negating any carbon reduction benefits. 

In short, afforestation does not reduce carbon emissions immediately because trees must first reach maturity before they can begin reducing emissions.

Con #3: Afforestation Carbon Offsets Can Negatively Alter Previously Established Ecosystems

Afforestation can negatively alter ecosystems because not all ecosystems are conducive to afforestation.

Afforestation Carbon Offset Con #3

Afforestation aims to reforest areas not recently forested, therefore increasing global tree coverage. However, we have to be careful of where we plant trees because not all ecosystems are conducive to afforestation, and because afforestation can have a high land use change opportunity cost.

Grasslands are often identified as key areas for afforestation because they account for 20-40% of Earth’s land area and are perceived as having lower levels of biodiversity than traditional forests. However, adding trees here can actually degrade the biome in a variety of ways. 

Afforestation in grassland biomes can:

  • Reduce the frequency of fires, which help maintain the ecosystem’s health by warming the soil, reducing leaf litter, and increasing sunlight exposure.
  • Reduce biodiversity by pushing out native species that prefer open and well-lit environments. 

Trees are also not synonymous with increases in biodiversity. If not planned properly, afforestation projects can introduce invasive species. For example, China’s Great Green Wall program of 1978 sought to reforest 35 million hectares of land. But within 25 years, most of the newly planted trees were dead or dying due to Asian long-horn beetle infestations. 

In short, afforestation can negatively alter ecosystems via biodiversity loss and invasive species if trees are planted in improper areas.

Con #4: Afforestation Carbon Offsets Do Not Reduce Your Own Carbon Emissions

Afforestation offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

Afforestation Carbon Offset Con #4

In general, one of the main limitations of carbon offsetting is that purchasing a carbon offset does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. It only makes others reduce their carbon footprint to compensate for your carbon footprint. 

If 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. Companies accused of greenwashing either invest in non-verified credits, do not prioritize in-house emissions reductions, or double-count carbon credits. Or sometimes, all of the above.

In short, because afforestation offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, they could lead to greenwashing.

These Are the 10 Best Afforestation Carbon Offsets in 2023

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 2023 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 reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinks, are cost-effective, promote clean water, and allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually. Purchasing afforestation offsets on the VCM can help mitigate climate change because the more trees we plant, the more atmospheric CO2 they can absorb. However, afforestation offsets also often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, can negatively alter existing ecosystems, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions.

For all of the good carbon offsets can instigate, 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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