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Carbon offset forests burn in US fires, raising doubts over climate credits

The fires have destroyed communities and set the stage for a calamitous fire season for the western US, following record heatwaves and droughts.

Microsoft, a long-time buyer of the carbon offset market, said some of its purchases were among those “now burning”.

The massive fires in California and up the west coast have raised questions about the viability of forest carbon credits.

The massive fires in California and up the west coast have raised questions about the viability of forest carbon credits. Credit:Bloomberg

“That is a reality of the new world,” Elizabeth Willmott, Microsoft’s carbon programme lead, told a webinar hosted by Carbon180, a climate-focused non government organisation.

Willmott said the wildfires were prompting a “deep conversation” at the company, but she cautioned against a “knee-jerk reaction” to the situation.

Earlier this year, the software giant announced the purchase of credits for 227,000 tonnes of carbon from forestry company Green Diamond in southern Oregon, where the Bootleg Fire is now raging. Patti Case, of Green Diamond, said it was not yet clear how much of their land had been destroyed.

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She stressed that, like every carbon offset programme, the projects carry “buffer” credits to account for shortfalls from fires, drought or disease.

Case said that while the carbon offset system still faced “more adjustments”, it was “still sound” logic to focus on improved forest management and carbon offsets in general.

Wildfires have also burned through the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state, where BP purchased more than 13 million carbon offset credits valued at more than $US100 million in 2016.

A BP spokesman said the scheme included a buffer that was “sufficient to replace offsets associated with natural disasters similar to the fire affecting Colville”.

Critics of the largely privately regulated offset market have said the recent fires should serve as a wake-up call.

“These forests are supposed to protect carbon for at least 100 years. And we can already see that the sort of permanence part of that claim is not looking very strong at all,” said Danny Cullenward from CarbonPlan, a non-profit group that tracks offset markets.

“The last fire season was off the charts, and the background climate conditions this year have been worse and we’re still very early in the season.

“We are on track for another very, very bad year. And that’s just not what these [carbon offset] protocols were set up to address,” he said.

The Telegraph, London

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