Many popular carbon offsets don’t actually counteract emissions, study says
The evidence against the power of carbon offset programs keeps stacking up.
Verra, the world’s leading provider of already controversial forest carbon offsets utilized by major corporations like Shell and Disney, may actually be making the planet’s dire climate crisis even worse. The new allegations come courtesy of a months’ long investigation recently undertaken by The Guardian alongside Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper as well as the nonprofit journalism outfit, SourceMaterial, adding to an already questionable picture of the $2 billion a year voluntary emissions offset market.
Carbon offsets are increasingly relied upon by corporations to meet publicly stated “net neutral” environmental goals. To accomplish this, projects such as tropical reforestation are financed by these companies, who then rely upon complicated calculations from sources like Verra to determine how much the green investment counteracts their own emissions.
[Related: Dozens of companies with ‘net-zero’ goals just got called out for greenwashing.]
Although frequently touted by some of the world’s largest companies in an effort to assure consumers that their purchases and investments aren’t contributing to ecological catastrophe, multiple studies already showcase the carbon offset industry’s problematic, misleading, and often harmful consequences.
According to findings in multiple studies cited by The Guardian, however, over 90 percent of Verra’s most popular rainforest offset credits are in reality “phantom credits.” These credits do not result in “genuine carbon reductions,” in fact one study found that 21 out of 29 Vera-approved projects had no actual climate benefit. Another 7 underperformed Verra’s expectations by as much as 98 percent. One project actually had 80 percent more of an impact than claimed. In another study of 40 Verra projects by a team at the University of Cambridge, only four were responsible for three-quarters of the total protected forestation.
[Related: What successful forest reforestation looks like.]
Critics and experts point towards the so-far wildly uneven, complicated, and frequently fluctuating standards within the carbon offset market as one of the key impediments to producing meaningful, restorative results. Yadvinder Singh Malhi, a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Oxford, told the Guardian that, “this work highlights the main challenge with realizing climate change mitigation benefits from [forest offsetting projects],” known as Redd+ schemes. “Many of these projects may have brought lots of benefits in terms of biodiversity conservation capacity and local communities, but the impacts on climate change on which they are premised are regrettably much weaker than hoped.”
The implications of the newest findings are particularly troubling, in that it appears companies claiming progress towards carbon neutral goals may actually be backsliding. Although some companies mentioned in the investigation said they’d look further into the discrepancies or move away from carbon offsets in favor of other eco-strategies, businesses like Shell appeared to double down on their commitment to Verra’s methodologies and offerings. Verra, for its part, strongly disputes the investigations’ data, according to rebuttals reported by The Guardian.