Reforestation Carbon Offsets: All 5 Pros and 4 Cons Explained

Reforestation Carbon Offsets: All 5 Pros and 4 Cons Explained

By
Grace Smoot

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Deforestation is the main threat to our forests, and one way to combat this is by planting new trees. Reforestation carbon offset projects plant trees in areas that have recently been deforested, helping to increase their carbon storage capacity and reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. So, we had to ask: What are the pros and cons of reforestation carbon offsets?

Reforestation carbon offsets are cost-effective, reinforce our carbon sinks, preserve biodiversity, and promote clean water; however, they often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, and face carbon storage capacity limitations.

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

The Big Picture of Reforestation 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 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 two ways, either as reforestation or afforestation. Reforestation carbon offsets are a specific type of tree planting carbon offset that focuses on replanting trees in recently deforested areas (i.e., converting recently non-forested land back into forest). Conversely, afforestation focuses on planting trees on land that has not recently been covered with forest.

“Reforestation: the action of renewing forest cover (as by natural seeding or by the artificial planting of seeds or young trees)”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Reforestation 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

Reforestation 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

Reforestation 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.

5 Pros of Reforestation Carbon Offsets4 Cons of Reforestation Carbon Offsets
Reforestation offsets are cost-effectiveReforestation offsets often lack permanence
Reforestation offsets reinforce our carbon sinksReforestation offsets do not reduce carbon emissions immediately
Reforestation offsets preserve biodiversityReforestation offsets face carbon storage capacity limitations
Reforestation offsets promote clean waterReforestation offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing
Reforestation offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually
Related: Are you interested in learning more about the big picture of reforestation carbon offsets? Check it out in this article here: “What Are Reforestation Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work? The Big Picture”

What Are 5 Pros of Reforestation Carbon Offsets

Reforestation carbon offsets are cost-effective, reinforce our carbon sinks, preserve biodiversity, promote clean water, and allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.

Pro #1: Reforestation Carbon Offsets Are Relatively Cost-Effective

Reforestation carbon offsets are one of the most cost-effective methods of carbon emission reduction.

Reforestation Carbon Offset Pro #1

In general, combating deforestation is an expensive process. But coupling reforestation with carbon offsets could help finance this process, especially since reforestation carbon offsets themselves are typically more cost-effective than other categories of carbon offsets. For example, reforestation offsets from leading providers (i.e., The Arbor Day Foundation, Reforest’Action, Ecologi, and One Tree Planted) 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

However, we will need many more reforestation offsets than we currently have to combat climate change effectively. As more reforestation offsets are made available, their prices will go up as a result. And this process will continue until we have enough of them on the voluntary carbon offset market (VCM). One study published in Nature Communications estimates that for forests to contribute 10% of mitigation needed to limit global warming to 1.5 °C by 2055, reforestation carbon offset prices will increase up to $281 per ton of CO2

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

Pro #2: Reforestation Carbon Offsets Reinforce Our Carbon Sinks

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

Reforestation Carbon Offset Pro #2

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.

Though, 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.

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

Pro #3: Reforestation Carbon Offsets Preserve Biodiversity

Reforestation carbon offsets bolster our forest communities, which act as habitats for vast numbers of plant and animal species.

Reforestation Carbon Offset Pro #3

Biodiversity refers to all the living species on earth, which includes 1.2 million species of identified plants and animals, and 7.5 million not yet identified species that experts estimate to exist. 

“Biodiversity: the variety of life found in a place on Earth or, often, the total variety of life on Earth”

Encyclopedia Britannica 

Reforestation promotes biodiversity because forests support terrestrial and aquatic wildlife by providing habitats and helping to keep waterways healthy. For example, tropical rainforests are earth’s oldest living ecosystem, covering only 6% of Earth’s surface. But they also harbor more than 30 million plant and animal species. Reforesting these areas can help to maintain the vast biodiversity found there.

When we cut down trees, we destroy the habitats of around 50% of the world’s species. Habitat loss is the leading driver of biodiversity loss, and biodiversity is crucial to our planet’s health. Having a variety of plants and animals sustains healthy ecosystems. And healthy ecosystems are associated with clean water, air, and healthy food supplies. 

In short, reforestation offsets restore forests that act as habitats for and can harbor millions of plant and animal species.

Pro #4: Reforestation Carbon Offsets Help Maintain the Water Cycle 

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

Reforestation Carbon Offset Pro #4

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

Pro #5: Reforestation Carbon Offsets Can Help Offset Carbon Emissions That Can’t Be Reduced Otherwise

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

Reforestation Carbon Offset Pro #5

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 reforestation offsets come into play, to reduce carbon emissions in other areas as compensation for the remainder of our carbon emissions.

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

What Are 4 Cons of Reforestation Carbon Offsets

However, reforestation carbon offsets also often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, face carbon storage capacity limitations, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

Con #1: Reforestation Carbon Offsets Often Lack Permanence

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

Reforestation Carbon Offset Con #1

Reforestation 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 reforestation, 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 reforestation efforts, lack permanence because they are reversible.

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

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

Reforestation Carbon Offset Con #2

Creating new forests is more time intensive than protecting existing forests because finding suitable land and physically planting the trees to create a new forest takes time. 

Carbon emission reductions are also 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. All trees mature at different rates, but a typical hardwood tree takes around 20 years to reach maturity. This means we must wait decades after planting the tree to begin to reap most of the environmental benefits. 

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

Con #3: Reforestation Carbon Offsets Face Carbon Storage Capacity Limitations

Carbon storage capacity limitations prevent reforestation efforts from being scalable enough to compensate for all of our carbon emissions.

Reforestation Carbon Offset Con #3

Because reforestation restores previously existing forests, our overall reforestation potential is limited by the number of forests that are in need of reforestation. Globally, our forests absorbed over 15.6bt of CO2 each year from 2001-2019, and the world has lost 1/3 of its forests since the last ice age. This means that 15.6 represents 2/3 of our global forest potential (when it only comes to reforestation). 

In total, the global reforestation potential would be at 7.8bt of CO2 per year. Even if fully utilized, this is only a fraction of the 33bt of CO2 emissions that we’d need to offset per year.

How much carbon a tree can store, or its carbon storage capacity, is dependent on the type of tree and a host of environmental factors, but a typical tree can absorb anywhere from 10-40kg (22-88 pounds) of CO2 per year.

If we use an average of 40 pounds of carbon absorbed, we would need to plant more than 200 billion trees every year to compensate for all of our emissions. A number that is far away from the about 1.9 billion trees currently planted every year.

In short, carbon storage capacity limitations prevent reforestation efforts from compensating for all of our carbon emissions, though we still have a long way to go to reach full storage capacity.

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

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

Reforestation 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 reforestation offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, they could lead to greenwashing.

How Could you Offset Your Own Carbon Footprint With Reforestation 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

Because reforestation carbon offsets are cost-effective and are one of the simplest ways you can contribute to the fight against climate change, they are expected to continue to make up an ever-increasing share of the VCM. Below are our favorite reforestation offsets.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the best reforestation carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Best Reforestation Carbon Offsets (Complete 2024 List)”
Carbon Offsets for ReforestationQuick Facts
The Arbor Day FoundationAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including those in Mississippi, Nicaragua, and Peru.
Costs: $40 per 1,000kg of CO2
Reforest’ActionAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
Costs: $19.30 per 1,000kg of CO2 for a direct carbon offset, $20 per 1,000kg of CO2 for an offset subscription
EcologiAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including those in Madagascar, Mozambique, Bolivia, and Morocco.
Costs: $6.04 per 1,000 kg of CO2 offset
Restore the Earth FoundationAbout: Carbon offset purchases support reforestation in the Lower Mississippi RiverBasin in the US.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
One Tree PlantedAbout: Carbon offset purchases support reforestation in North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Pacific.
Costs: $20 per 1,000kg of CO2
The Carbon Offset CompanyAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including those in the US, Senegal, Madagascar, Haiti, and Mozambique.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
GreenTreesAbout: The GreenTree reforestation program partners with landowners to convert farmland into hardwood forest. GreenTrees currently plant trees in the South Eastern US, the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and the state of Virginia. 
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
CarbonfundAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley Reforestation Initiative and 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
Cool EffectAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including The Giving Trees project in Kenya and Uganda.
Costs: $8.79-$21.97 per 1,000kg of CO2
myclimateAbout: Carbon offset purchases support third-party certified reforestation carbon offset projects including those in Nicaragua and Uganda.
Costs: $23-$30 per 1,000kg of CO2

How Can Reforestation Carbon Offsets Help Mitigate Climate Change

Climate change is a severe and long-term consequence of fossil fuel combustion. Reforestation 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 Reforestation Carbon Offsets Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

Reforestation 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 Reforestation Carbon Offsets

If used correctly, reforestation 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. Reforestation 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 reforestation 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 reforestation 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

Reforestation (tree planting) carbon offsets are cost-effective, reinforce our carbon sinks, preserve biodiversity, promote clean water, and allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually. Purchasing reforestation offsets on the VCM can help mitigate climate change because the more trees we plant, the more atmospheric CO2 they can absorb. However, reforestation offsets also often lack permanence, do not reduce carbon emissions immediately, face carbon storage capacity limitations, 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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