How Amazon's Offsets Might Exaggerate Progress In direction of “Web Zero” Emissions


The Family Forest Impact Foundation, in turn, will sell credits to companies like Amazon in voluntary balancing markets for the extra carbon built up on the properties.

Family landowners have largely not participated in such markets because adhering to the programs can be complicated and expensive.

"Existing carbon forest markets didn't work for small landowners," says Christine Cadigan, director of the Family Forest Carbon Program at the American Forest Foundation. By relaxing some of the most cumbersome requirements, the groups believe they can cut costs by 75%, she says.

The organizations are working with Verra, a non-profit that accredits offset logs, to review and validate the approach. In the second Amazon-funded effort, known as the Forest Carbon Co-ops, the Conservation Agency is working with the Vermont Land Trust to develop a similar program for owners of forest land between 200 and 2,000 acres.

Amazon said the two programs together will reduce or prevent 18.5 million tons of carbon dioxide from being released by 2031. The company did not respond to requests from MIT Technology Review prior to going to press.

Over counting of CO2 reductions

However, several outside researchers who have looked at the proposal fear that the program may overestimate the CO2 reductions actually achieved in various ways.

The biggest red flag for Barbara Haya, a research fellow at the Center for Environmental Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, is how to deal with the so-called "leak". This occurs when reduced timber harvests caused by offset projects simply lead to increased harvest elsewhere.

According to Haya, some previous research suggests that more than 80% of these reductions can simply be shifted to harvesting forest areas in neighboring regions or even in other countries. According to the rules for reduced harvesting practice, landowners would generally only have to consider a leak rate of 10% in their calculations.

This suggests that even if the family's forest projects were consuming significant additional carbon, much of the benefits could be negated by larger harvests elsewhere, limiting the real climate benefits.

Some observers are also concerned about how the projects are audited to ensure compliance.

One of the key ways the program promises to make participation more cost-effective is to eliminate the need for reviewers to come out and perform detailed assessments of all project locations.

Instead, the program will use an aggregation of samples in similar forests to determine what would be expected on the project land given the forestry practice in the region without the program. They then compare these numbers with field measurements of additional carbon stored over time using a "statistically significant random sample of properties" registered in the program to determine how much more carbon the practices should save or remove.

That approach can result in accurate billing over time, says Grayson Badgley, a plant physiologist at Black Rock Forest and Columbia University. However, he says it will be difficult to ensure that all assumptions are correct and that the charts are properly selected and weighted to reflect the conditions and land management practices for the projects enrolled.

One risk is that accepted forestry practices in the region may be more representative of large logging companies than of family landowners. This would exaggerate the amount of harvests that would have occurred without the program and thus overestimate the carbon gains made.

Finally, there are additional concerns about whether the program will raise enough credit to offset any setbacks that could arise if landowners simply increase crops at the end of the 10 or 20 year contract – or due to natural risks to trees like forest fires, storms, and insect infestation , all of which increase with climate change.

In an email, Cadigan stressed that they are still in the approval process and are making various adjustments based on public comments and other feedback. However, she also said they are confident that their methods will sustainably improve forest management and accurately estimate the additional carbon removal over time.

"Once they reset their management, it will be more economical for them to keep that approach, and as a result, that management will have a positive long-term impact," she wrote.

The wider risks

The Family Forest program is just one of many offsetting measures Amazon may want to invest in or buy credit. The company also announced plans to allocate more than $ 4 million to an urban greening program in Germany, another conservation project.

Amazon is taking concrete steps to reduce direct corporate emissions as well. The company has invested in more than 30 large solar and wind projects around the world, adding rooftop solar panels to dozen of fulfillment or sorting centers to run entirely on renewable electricity by 2025. The retailer also agreed to purchase 100,000 electric vans from Rivian with the aim of ensuring that half of its shipments are "net zero carbon" by 2030.

But between its corporate facilities, data centers, operations and suppliers, the company has a massive carbon footprint – and one that is currently growing. Last year, directly or indirectly, the equivalent of more than 50 million tons of carbon dioxide were emitted. That is an increase of around 44 million in 2018.

Like most companies, Amazon has not specified what proportion of its emissions it wants nature-based offsets to address. However, having a strong reliance on them presents very real challenges when most of these programs, as a growing number of researchers believe, often overstate the actual reductions.

Companies can claim to customers, policymakers, and others that they are carbon neutral while producing tons more gases to warm the planet than the programs remove.

Another problem is that the growing number of nature-based projects creates larger pools of low-cost carbon offsets, the availability of which can undermine the viability of more reliable carbon capture methods.

The bottom line is that companies are likely to choose a forest offset of around $ 10, which purports to remove the same tonne of emissions that Swiss startup Climeworks charges for reliable removal and permanent storage using carbon dioxide suction machines and underground geological formations. (In particular, Microsoft has announced it will pay just $ 20 per tonne for offsets to undo the company's entire emissions history, which some observers believe will divert them from the more reliable means of carbon removal.)

For a company like Amazon, it is often far cheaper to buy offset credits than it is to figure out the more difficult aspects of reducing emissions from companies, such as: B. the complete cleanup of the shipping process or ensuring that its large supplier network is carbon-free.

"They're essentially licensing these big companies to do business as usual," said Sam Davis, a conservation scientist with the Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit environmental organization focused on protecting southern forests. "If we really have to and want to tackle climate change from a company perspective, we cannot simply pay off the debt with failed emissions certificates and greenwashing."

Climate models show that the world will have to cut emissions and shed billions of tons of carbon dioxide annually by mid-century to prevent truly dangerous global warming. However, there are limits to how much forests and other nature-based systems can do to get us there.

Ideally, these options should be reserved for the really hard-to-solve parts of the decarbonization puzzle – like aviation, heavy industry, and methane from agriculture – or used to give poor nations leeway to emit a little longer as their economies develop. says Holly Buck, Assistant Professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Buffalo.

In other words, there is a real risk when rich companies in rich countries buy a disproportionate share of the cheapest sources for carbon removal while having many other ways to drive their emissions to zero.


Steven Gregory