The issue – why is it relevant to the work of Rivers Trusts in our movement.

Governments and businesses have committed to reducing carbon emissions and reducing their carbon footprint in order to tackle the Climate Crisis. Avoiding and reducing emissions is the priority in the hierarchy of measures used to mitigate green house gases (GHG), including carbon.

Carbon offsetting is generally used by governments, businesses and individuals to compensate for the direct release of CO2 into the atmosphere by removing the same amount of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) elsewhere. Offsetting schemes are most frequently used to reduce indirect (or scope 3) emissions that happen in their supply chains, given that these are the most difficult to directly cut. They may involve developing renewable energy, conserving ecosystems under threat or growing additional trees and biodiversity which absorbs carbon dioxide in photosynthesis. The Rivers Trust is involved in the latter two.

Carbon in-setting is a newer concept and has been growing in popularity over the last 2-3 years. Whereas offset schemes are classically outside of a company’s direct or indirect operations, inset schemes are related directly to GHG reduction strategies within a company’s supply chain. As much as 90% of a company’s climate impact is happening in its supply chain which is often not fully understood, therefore this is an important step for businesses to be taking in understanding their full impact.

The Rivers Trust aims to revive rivers to a healthy state whilst building resilience to the Climate Crisis. Planting the right trees in the right places can help provide buffers zones next to rivers and enhance the health of catchments.

What are the contentious aspects?

Carbon offset schemes are often criticized as they do not represent actual emissions reduction. Direct carbon emissions are still produced, however these are then offset elsewhere through schemes such as tree planting. Whilst investing in carbon offset schemes may result in a net-zero footprint, it is important to take a holistic view and consider measures to directly reduce GHG emissions.

Off-setting schemes are open to criticisms of green-washing if they are not undertaken alongside actions to avoid and reduce carbon emissions, plus replace carbon-intensive energy sources and products with renewable alternatives. In the worst cases, schemes are seen as short-term get-out clause for polluters.

Short term investments to achieve targets quickly can also result in negative impact. Trees are vulnerable to climate changes. Droughts and higher temperatures eliminate 10 million ha of forest per year. Therefore, trees planted as part of offsetting projects could become a source of emissions if they die prematurely.

Global emissions need to reduce by 45% by 2030 to avoid catastrophic planetary changes (IPCC 2018). The trees planted today cannot grow fast enough to achieve this goal. Planting fast-growing or non-native tree species could potentially lead to loss of biodiversity and increased threats of flooding or drought.

Natural regeneration is an essential element helping to restore and improve the resilience of our catchments. However, it is a slower process than direct tree planting and should therefore be considered in parallel with existing national tree planting targets rather than a direct replacement. Studies have shown how both initiatives can complement each other by identifying locations where natural forest regrowth has higher climate mitigation potential and should be considered alongside tree planting initiatives.

There is a lack of consensus on tools used to quantify soil carbon sequestration and uncertainty with the estimates they provide, hence there is significant potential for soil carbon storage to be over-estimated.

What is our position?

We recognise that offset schemes play an important role in funding and upscaling initiatives in tree planting, catchment regeneration and forest and peatland protection. In turn, these schemes influence improvements in wider integrated ecosystem restoration across catchments.

Private funding for carbon offsetting and insetting can provide critical funding to help improve the resilience of catchments, our freshwater environments and our communities.

As a movement we support the planting of the right trees, in the right places for the right reasons. We recognise that traditional commercial forestry is an essential part of the rural economy, but our current focus is to support the planting of trees for environmental benefits, as opposed to commercial gain.

No business is perfect; however, we will only work with businesses who already have a published commitment to reduce their emissions and impact on the environment and are taking meaningful actions to achieve this. All businesses will go through a strict due diligence process before we embark on a carbon scheme with them.

We will only plant trees in accord with best practice that is supported by clear science and evidence using the UK Forestry Standards as a minimum. We will only engage in carbon trading through government endorsed schemes such as the woodland carbon code.

We fully support the concept of natural regeneration of woodlands but recognise that this is a slower more uncertain process that needs to compliment, and be in addition to, existing tree planting targets rather than a substitute.

What are we doing about this issue?

Members of the Rivers Trust movement are involved in a number of tree planting and woodland creation projects across the UK to tackle carbon emissions and support a healthier environment. These projects are often supported by corporate partners/sponsors as part of their carbon offsetting strategies to become carbon neutral, and in some cases carbon negative.

Any schemes / interventions need to adequately reward land managers and be as simple and easy to implement at the point of delivery as possible. Through our Woodlands for Water project, The Rivers Trust are currently working with DEFRA to support the uptake of the England Woodland Creation Offer which benefits landowners with a financial incentive to convert current agricultural land to woodland. As the scheme is in its infancy, we are working closely with local trusts to provide vital feedback on the scheme to ensure that it is providing the best benefits possible (for the correct interventions).

Land managers and owners need to be made aware of the long-term management requirements and responsibility of tree planting and maintenance. This also includes being transparent about their long-term liability and what this will mean for future managers or landowners.

*Note on carbon markets:

There are two types of markets for carbon offsets, compliance and voluntary.

  • Compliance offsets are regulated by mandatory national, regional or international carbon reductions schemes such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)
  • They are also regulated by the Kyoto Protocol, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the Western Climate Initiative (WCI).
  • The voluntary carbon market is regulated through certification from approved providers that uphold a set of standards, provide guidance, and establish requirements for project developers to follow in order to generate carbon offset credits.
  • In the UK there is a well-developed woodland carbon code for the registration and verification of carbon units via tree planting. However, there is no universally agreed quantification for soil carbon, particularly as changes under different land management practices are highly variable. Whilst the peatland code applies to upland (and non-cultivated) UK peatland, no such equivalent for lowland cultivated carbon rich soil exists limiting the possibility of establishing off setting schemes; In the UK the most carbon rich soils are found under arable agriculture in the East.

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