Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Explained: All You Need to Know

Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Explained: All You Need to Know

By
Grace Smoot

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The global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere registers at over 400 parts per million. In the scope of carbon offsets, nature-based carbon offsets could play a crucial role in lowering this level because it is one way to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. So, we had to ask: What are nature-based carbon offsets really, and could they help us mitigate climate change?

Nature-based carbon offsets focus on the storage of atmospheric carbon in plants, soils, and the ocean, commonly referred to as our carbon sinks. They can continue to reduce emissions after project lifespans; however, they can also lack permanence and are yet to be scaled.

Keep reading to find out all about what nature-based 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 these offsets can help mitigate climate change and what better alternatives to them are. 

The Big Picture of Nature-Based 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

Nature-based carbon offsets are those that focus on the storage of atmospheric carbon in plants, soils, and the ocean, which are capable of absorbing massive amounts of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

What are nature-based carbon offsetsNature-based carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that focuses on the storage of atmospheric carbon in plants, soils, and the ocean, commonly referred to as our carbon sinks.
How do nature-based carbon offsets workNature-based carbon offset projects reduce emissions by eliminating carbon from the atmosphere via reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, or agricultural practices.
How effective and efficient are nature-based carbon offsetsEffectiveness: Depending on the type of nature-based offset, they can reinforce our terrestrial and marine carbon sinks and protect soil health; however, they can also lack permanence, may not reduce emissions immediately, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions.

Efficiency: Depending on the type of nature-based offset, they are relatively cost-effective, can preserve existing forests and marine ecosystems, and can continue to avoid CO2 emissions after project lifespans; however, they also face carbon storage capacity limitations, and may not yet be scaled to compensate for our global emissions.
What are the 6 pros of nature-based carbon offsets1. Nature-based carbon offsets reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinks
2. Nature-based carbon offsets reinforce our marine carbon sinks
3. Nature-based carbon offsets protect soil health
4. Nature-based carbon offsets preserve biodiversity and help maintain the water cycle
5. Nature-based carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective
6. Nature-based carbon offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually
What are the 6 cons of nature-based carbon offsets1. Nature-based carbon offsets often lack permanence
2. Nature-based carbon offsets can lack additionality 
3. Nature-based carbon offsets face carbon storage capacity limitations
4. Nature-based carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for our global emissions
5. Nature-based carbon offsets may not reduce carbon emissions immediately
6. Nature-based carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing
What are the best nature-based carbon offsetsThe best nature-based carbon offsets are offered by The Arbor Day Foundation, REDD.plus, SeaTrees, and Husk, which offer reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agricultural carbon offset projects.
How can nature-based carbon offsets help mitigate climate changeNature-based solutions in general can specifically help mitigate climate change because they eliminate atmospheric carbon, which when emitted, can remain in our atmosphere for a long period of time. 

What Are Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

Carbon removal is the process of eliminating carbon from the atmosphere. It is also referred to as negative emissions or carbon drawdown.

“Carbon Removal: the process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Carbon removal can be split into 2 categories, technological and natural carbon removal. Nature-based carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that uses nature (e.g., trees and marine ecosystems) to extract carbon from the atmosphere and store it in biomass.

Carbon offsets that are commonly classified as nature-based carbon offsets include:

How Do Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Work

Nature-based carbon offset projects reduce emissions by eliminating CO2 from the atmosphere via reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, or agricultural practices.

Carbon removal can be split into 2 categories, technological and natural carbon removal.

  • Technological removal: This involves specialized technology that extracts carbon from the atmosphere. 
  • Natural removal: Also known as carbon sequestration. Carbon is stored naturally in vegetation (forests), soils, and oceans, also referred to as our carbon sinks. 

Pulling carbon out of the atmosphere is one way to mitigate the adverse effects of CO2 emissions that occur once they enter our atmosphere.

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

How Effective and Efficient Are Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

In terms of effectiveness, nature-based carbon offsets reinforce our terrestrial and marine carbon sinks and protect soil health; however, they can also lack permanence, may not reduce emissions immediately, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions.

In terms of efficiency, nature-based carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective, can preserve existing forests and marine ecosystems, and can continue to avoid CO2 emissions after project lifespans; however, they also face carbon storage capacity limitations, and may not yet be scaled to compensate for our global emissions.

Nature-based carbon offsets are effective at mitigating climate change because:

  • Reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, and agricultural offsets reinforce forests, which are one of our largest terrestrial carbon sinks
  • Blue carbon offsets reinforce coastal and marine ecosystems, which are some of our largest marine carbon sinks
  • Agricultural (e.g., biochar, agroforestry, and avoided grassland conversion) offsets can improve soil structure and nutrient cycling

However, nature-based carbon offsets can also lack effectiveness because: 

Nature-based carbon offsets are efficient at reducing CO2 emissions because:

  • Reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agricultural offsets are some of the most cost-effective methods of carbon emission reduction. 
  • REDD+ and blue carbon offsets can efficiently protect existing forests and marine ecosystems.
  • Reforestation, afforestation, and blue carbon offsets can continue to reduce carbon long after projects have been completed.

However, nature-based carbon offsets can also lack efficiency because: 

However, nature-based carbon offsets 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 nature-based carbon offsets are? Check out the full article here: “How Effective and Efficient Are Nature-Based Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts”

What Are The 6 Pros and 6 Cons of Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

Nature-based carbon offsets are a cost-effective method to reinforce our terrestrial and marine carbon sinks, protect soil health, preserve biodiversity, and help maintain the water cycle. These offsets also allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.

However, nature-based offsets can also lack permanence and additionality, face carbon storage capacity limitations, may not yet be scaled to compensate for our global emissions, and may not reduce carbon emissions immediately. They also 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 nature-based carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Nature-Based Carbon Offsets: All 6 Pros and 6 Cons Explained”

What Are the 6 Pros of Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

Nature-based carbon offsets have various pros that make them effective at reducing carbon emissions.

6 Pros of Nature-Based Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Nature-based carbon offsets reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinksNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, and agriculture reinforce forests, which are one of our largest carbon sinks. 
#2: Nature-based carbon offsets reinforce our marine carbon sinksNature-based offsets involving blue carbon reinforce coastal and marine ecosystems, which are one of our largest carbon sinks.
#3: Nature-based carbon offsets protect soil healthNature-based offsets involving agriculture (e.g., biochar, agroforestry, and avoided grassland conversion) can improve soil structure and nutrient cycling. 
#4: Nature-based carbon offsets preserve biodiversity and help maintain the water cycleNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture preserve biodiversity, which in turn helps maintain clean water, air, and a healthy food supply.
#5: Nature-based carbon offsets are relatively cost-effectiveNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture are some of the most cost-effective methods of carbon emission reduction. 
#6: Nature-based carbon offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individuallyNature-based offsets allow us to reduce emissions from activities where sustainable alternatives are not yet widely available. 

What Are the 6 Cons of Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

Understanding the drawbacks of nature-based offsets is important in order to effectively mitigate climate change.

6 Cons of Nature-Based Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Nature-based carbon offsets often lack permanenceNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture often lack permanence because they are reversible solutions.
#2: Nature-based carbon offsets can lack additionality Nature-based offsets involving REDD+ often lack additionality because what would have happened without REDD+ intervention cannot be measured exactly.
#3: Nature-based carbon offsets face carbon storage capacity limitationsCarbon storage capacity limitations prevent nature-based offset efforts from being scalable enough to compensate for all of our carbon emissions.
#4: Nature-based carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for our global emissionsNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, and agriculture are not yet scaled to compensate for the billions of tons of GHG we emit annually. 
#5: Nature-based carbon offsets may not reduce carbon emissions immediatelyNature-based offsets involving reforestation, afforestation, blue carbon, and agriculture may not reduce carbon emissions immediately because of the time needed to plant trees and for them to reach maturity. 
#6: Nature-based carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashingNature-based carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing. 

How Could You Offset Your Own Carbon Footprint With Nature-Based 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. 

The Ecosystem Marketplace predicts the VCM can grow to $50B by the year 2050. And because nature-based offsets can be effective and efficient at reducing carbon emissions, they are predicted to make up an increasingly larger share of this market.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the best carbon nature-based carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Best Carbon Nature-Based Carbon Offsets”
Nature-Based 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
REDD.plusAbout: Carbon offset purchases support UNFCCC-verified REDD+ projects around the globe. REDD.plus is a central registry and exchange for REDD+ Result Units, a type of carbon credit. 
Costs: $16 per ton of CO2 
SeaTreesAbout: Carbon offset purchases support coral reef/kelp forest/watershed restoration as well as mangrove tree planting.
Costs: $22 per 1,000kg of CO2
HuskAbout: Husk converts rice husks into biochar, fertilizers, and biopesticides via smokeless pyrolysis, preventing the re-emission of carbon into the atmosphere. 
Costs: Husk uses resellers to sell its solutions. Visit Patch’s website to learn more about pricing. 
EcologiAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation/afforestation carbon offset projects including those in Madagascar, Mozambique, Bolivia, Morocco, Senegal, and Uruguay.
Costs: $6.04 per 1,000 kg of CO2 offset
One Tree PlantedAbout: Carbon offset purchases support reforestation/afforestation projects including those in the US, Romania, Iceland, and Africa.
Costs: $20 per 1,000kg of CO2
The Ocean FoundationAbout: Carbon offset purchases support the SeaGrass Grow, seagrass planting project.
Costs: $20 per 1,000kg of CO2
Wildlife WorksAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified carbon offset projects including The Kasigau Corridor, Mai Ndombe, and Southern Cardamom REDD+ projects in Kenya, Cambodia, and Colombia respectively.
Costs: $20 per ton of CO2
Vi AgroforestryAbout: Vi Agroforestry specializes in poverty reduction and environmental improvement through agroforestry and improved farming practices. 
Costs: $28 per 1,000kg of CO2 offset
CarbofexAbout: Carbofex’s pyrolysis technology takes waste biomass from urban or agricultural sources and turns it into biochar, which can then be used to enhance agricultural soils or to produce renewable energy.
Costs: Carbofex uses resellers to sell its solutions. Visit the Puro.earth website to learn more about their respective pricing.
TerrapassAbout: Carbon offset purchases support the reforestation, afforestation, and REDD+ projects in Peru, Canada, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the US.
Costs: $16.51-$17.63 per 1,000kg of CO2

How Can Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Help Mitigate Climate Change

Climate change is a severe and long-term consequence of fossil fuel combustion. Nature-based carbon offsets can help mitigate climate change because they eliminate fossil-fuel-derived carbon from our atmosphere which, if left untreated, can 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, they trap the heat and act 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 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 Nature-Based Carbon Offsets Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

Nature-based solutions in general can specifically help mitigate climate change because they eliminate atmospheric carbon, which when emitted, can remain in our atmosphere for a long period of time

Reforestation, afforestation, and REDD+ 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. 

Blue carbon offsets specifically help mitigate climate change because they protect coastal and marine ecosystems, which are capable of absorbing more CO2 per acre than rainforests and at a rate 10x greater. 

Agricultural carbon offsets such as biochar, agroforestry, and avoided grassland conversion can specifically help mitigate climate change because they reduce CO2 emissions in one of the biggest industries worldwide.

What Are Better Alternatives to Nature-Based Carbon Offsets

If used correctly, nature-based 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. Nature-based carbon offsets must be used in conjunction with direct carbon reduction measures to reduce carbon emissions for the long term. 

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 nature-based 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 nature-based 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

Nature-based carbon offset projects reduce emissions by eliminating carbon from the atmosphere via reforestation, afforestation, REDD+, blue carbon, or agricultural practices. Their effectiveness and efficiency highly depend on the type of offset. 

Reforestation, afforestation, biochar, and agroforestry offsets reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinks, whereas blue carbon offsets reinforce our marine carbon sink. REDD+ offsets protect existing forests, which is time and cost-effective. In general, nature-based offsets can continue to reduce emissions after project lifespans.

The top nature-based carbon offsets are those offered by companies whose projects are verified by recognized standards. But although carbon offsets can instigate meaningful change, they should not be seen as the only solution to climate change. In the long term, they fail to reduce CO2 enough to mitigate climate change for future generations. 

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

Stay impactful,

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