Does planting trees really offset carbon? Let's find out! - Frequently Asked Questions(FAQ)

Does planting trees really offset carbon? Let's find out!

February 28, 2022

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Trees capture CO2 and remove it from the atmosphere

Offsetting carbon dioxide by planting trees has become by far the most popular form of emissions offsets. Tech, airline, and fossil fuel companies are clambering to get their hands on more offset credits from trees. They are even available to individual consumers. Though there are benefits to this model of emissions offsetting, as we will learn, it is by no means the perfect solution to our society’s critical climate problem

How can you offset carbon with trees?

Many companies around the world are under pressure to make their operations more sustainable, either for public relations reasons, or by law. There are two main ways in which this can be done: by changing operations so they are less emissions intensive, and by purchasing emissions offsets such that any remaining pollution is neutralized. 

Trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere

One kind of offsets uses trees, which absorb carbon dioxide as they grow. For reference, forests around the world are responsible for absorbing one third of fossil-fuel related emissions each year. 

So how does this process work?

Well, the owner of a forested property can sell what are essentially the “rights” to negative emissions generated by the land’s trees. The companies who purchase these rights, known as offsets, can balance their emissions books to meet sustainability targets. Forested properties are being bought and sold, planted and maintained to serve the massively expanding demand for these offsets. 

In theory, trees are a terrific way to absorb ambient carbon. In practice, there are deep rooted issues with relying on trees for carbon offsets. 

Why is this practice problematic?

There are five main reasons why trees are a problematic form of offsets. 

1. It’s incredibly difficult to track the actual amount of carbon that a tree – let alone an entire forest – absorbs. This means that figures touted by offset vendors are really just estimates. Every tree and every forest is different; assigning them an offset value without first having done extensive research results in poor sustainability practices. 

2. Oftentimes the so called “forests” that offset vendors offer credits from are closer to tree plantations. Forests with one species of tree, known as monoculture grown, are hardly forests at all. In addition to overlooking the ecological importance of biodiversity, young forests with poor species coverage are demonstrated to be less productive as emissions sponges. 

3. Timing is a major concern in tree offsets, as in longevity. There are reports that trees only begin to absorb carbon at maximum efficiency after at least 10 years of growth. This means there are few credits to redeem until a decade after an offset purchase of a new growth forest is made. Moreover – trees are hardly permanent fixtures. Wildfires and other natural disasters, not to mention logging, can instantly render forests useless in terms of carbon uptake.

4. Planting and maintaining trees can cause further climate related issues. Trees are water intensive to grow, meaning the drier climates where many offset projects are based run the risk of resource depletion. Additionally, wildfires fueled by protected forests are massive sources of emissions. 

Forest fires release CO2 back into the atmosphere
Wild fires release whatever amount of CO2 that was absorbed by trees back into the atmosphere

Better ways than using trees to offset carbon.

Though trees may not be ideal for carbon offsetting, the mechanism of offsetting is still an invaluable tool in striving towards sustainability. From high tech Kelp farms to direct carbon capture, there are numerous options for investment into offsetting. No matter the method, researching the effectiveness of a proposed offset engagement is crucial. 

If you own a retail business, consider working with Neutrl’s platform of credited emissions removal partners to improve its environmental impact. 

To sum it all up.

Carbon offsetting is a valuable tool to rectify emissions that cannot be eliminated from a company’s footprint. Planting and maintaining forests are the most popular form of offsets. Despite this, there are a number of issues pertaining to the use of trees for emissions removal credits. These issues include biodiversity loss, water consumption, and questionable accounting. Always do your research when purchasing carbon offsets!


Want to learn more?
Tree Carbon Offset FAQs

What are tree carbon offsets?

Land owners can sell the rights to the carbon absorbed by the trees on their property to companies or individuals with sustainability goals.

How much carbon does a tree offset per year?

This figure varies widely. Mature trees can absorb around 50 lbs (22 kg) per year, but this depends on the tree’s species, age, location, and a number of other factors.

How do tree offsets impact biodiversity?

Land owners are incentivized to plant monoculture – or single species – plots to maximize rapid growth. This means the land can’t grow as diverse as it should.

Are all carbon offsets bad?

Not at all! There are numerous other forms of offsets that have better longevity, safety, and environmental outlooks.


CBS News, Planting a tree to offset 

US forest Service, Carbon Ecosystems 

IUCN, Forests and Climate Change