How Effective & Efficient Are Afforestation Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts

How Effective & Efficient Are Afforestation Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts

By
Grace Smoot

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Afforestation (planting trees) is a method of carbon avoidance that uses trees to absorb carbon from our atmosphere. Although it is one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways of mitigating climate change, it can have limitations involving permanence and timing of emission reductions. So, we had to ask: how effective and efficient are afforestation carbon offsets?

Afforestation carbon offsets are effective because they reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinks, but they lack permanence and do not reduce carbon emissions immediately. They are efficient because they are cost-effective, but they are less efficient than protecting or restoring existing forests. 

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

The Big Picture of the Effectiveness and Efficiency 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.

How Do Afforestation Carbon Offsets WorkAfforestation projects reduce CO2 emissions by increasing the number of trees on the planet, which absorb CO2 as they grow and mature.
How Effective Are Afforestation Carbon Offsets at Mitigating Climate ChangeAfforestation offsets reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinksAfforestation offsets often lack permanence
Afforestation offsets do not reduce carbon emissions immediately
Afforestation offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing
How Efficient Are Afforestation Carbon Offsets at Reducing CO2 EmissionsAfforestation offsets are relatively cost-effective
Afforestation offsets can continue to avoid CO2 emissions after their project life span
Afforestation offsets are less efficient than restoring or protecting already existing forests

Afforestation efforts focus on planting new trees to combat climate change by increasing the total amount of tree cover. Afforestation varies in effectiveness and efficiency due to limitations involving permanence and timing of emission reductions.

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

Here’s How Effective and Efficient Afforestation Carbon Offsets Are

In terms of effectiveness, afforestation carbon offsets 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.

How Effective Are Afforestation Carbon Offset Programs at Reducing CO2 Emissions

Effectiveness involves completing a task with a desired outcome, typically a successful one. 

“Effective: producing the result that is wanted or intended; producing a successful result”

Oxford Dictionary

Afforestation carbon offsets are effective at mitigating 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.

Afforestation Carbon Offsets Reinforce Our Carbon Sinks

Forests are capable of absorbing 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.

Our global 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, this means that forests act as a carbon sink capable of absorbing a net 7.6 bt of CO2 per year.

“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

Trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere to produce oxygen via photosynthesis, a process which complements life on earth that 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.

Afforestation Carbon Offsets Often Lack Permanence

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. 

Nature-based solutions, such as afforestation, 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). Once a tree is planted, it should never be removed in order to guarantee permanence. But trees die naturally, and environmental disasters such as floods, fires, changes in land use, and climate change itself can negate any permanence. 

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

Afforestation Carbon Offsets Do Not Reduce Carbon Emissions Immediately

Afforestation, or restoring forests on lands where they once existed, is more time intensive than protecting existing forests because physically planting the trees takes time. 

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.

Afforestation Carbon Offsets Do Not Reduce Your Own Carbon Emissions

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.

How Efficient Are Afforestation Carbon Offset Programs at Mitigating Climate Change

Efficiency involves performing a task while using the least amount of resources and producing the least amount of waste possible.

“Efficient: working in a way that does not waste a resource (= something valuable such as fuel, water, or money)”

Cambridge Dictionary

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 Relatively Cost-Effective

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.

Afforestation Carbon Offsets Can Continue to Avoid CO2 Emissions After Their Project Life Span

Trees continue absorbing carbon long after they mature, meaning that afforestation projects can continue to reduce carbon emissions long after the trees have been planted.

The ability of afforestation offsets to continue to reduce carbon after the project has been completed is dependent on the continued protection of the forest. Afforestation offsets do not necessarily protect trees after they have been planted. So, any future carbon reductions could be negated if the trees are deforested before they die naturally

However, at some point, carbon storage in trees is balanced by releasing carbon back into the atmosphere via wood and leaf decay, insect and animal consumption, and overall tree respiration. As they mature, forests go from being carbon negative to carbon neutral, and even carbon positive, if they are destroyed.

In short, afforestation offsets continue to reduce carbon long after the project has been completed, so long as they are not deforested prematurely.

Afforestation Carbon Offsets Are Less Efficient Than Restoring Or Protecting Already Existing Forests

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) carbon offsets protect already existing forests, and reforestation carbon offsets restore previously destroyed forests. Both of these are more efficient than afforestation in terms of time and cost.

Protecting existing forests and restoring previously existing ones is more time effective than creating new ones because finding suitable land for afforestation and physically planting the trees takes time. Carbon emissions can also be reduced immediately when you protect existing forests, whereas creating new forests requires waiting for the trees to first reach maturity before they can begin to reduce a substantial amount of carbon emissions.

It is also more cost-effective to protect and restore forests rather than planting new ones. Afforestation involves land conversion (e.g., grassland into forests), transportation of the trees to the site, and physically planting the trees. REDD+ does not require any of this, and reforestation does not require land conversion. Afforestation overall is a more involved and costly process.

In short, restoring our previously destroyed forests and protecting the ones we already have is more efficient than planting entirely new ones.

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

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., 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 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 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.

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.

Carbon offsets can instigate meaningful change, but 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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