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Head of Verra, top carbon credit certifier, to leave in June

David Antonioli at COP15 in 2009.

David Antonioli at COP15 in 2009. Image by Dave Sag via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

  • David Antonioli is the founding CEO of Verra, the world’s most prominent carbon credit standards organization.
  • Antonioli will leave the post in June amid increasing scrutiny of carbon markets and credits, as well as the methodologies by which they are certified to ensure they provide climate benefits that do not come at the expense of communities.
  • Indigenous groups and forest communities are often key participants in restoration and protection efforts to boost carbon sequestration.
  • But they say that little of the financing for climate mitigation flows directly to them, and they also want a more prominent role in the discussions about climate change mitigation projects and the future of mechanisms like carbon credits and markets.

The founding CEO of the world’s most prominent standards organization for carbon credits sold on voluntary markets will step down.

David Antonioli will leave the U.S.-based nonprofit standard-setting organization Verra after 15 years on June 16, according to a May 22 statement. Judith Simon, hired as Verra’s president in February, will take over as interim CEO.

The news comes in a year in which carbon credits have been painted by opponents and in media reports as an avenue for companies to greenwash their carbon-emitting activities without substantively working to reduce their carbon footprints.

Companies looking to compensate for, or “offset,” their emissions can purchase credits that are certified by groups like Verra on voluntary markets. Verra, with its Verified Carbon Standard carbon crediting program, has become a leader in this space. That certification is supposed to entail due diligence aimed at ensuring the projects are meaningfully contributing to reducing or removing carbon from the atmosphere, for example, through initiatives to protect or restore tropical forests. The stamp of approval is also meant to ensure such projects don’t infringe on the land rights of Indigenous and local communities.

But beginning in January 2023, The Guardian, together with other news organizations, have published a series of articles that contend the majority of carbon credit sales in their analysis did not lead to the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere. The questions have centered on concepts such as additionality, which refers to whether a credit represents carbon savings over and above what would have happened without the underlying effort, and other methods used to calculate climate benefits.

The series also presented evidence that a Verra-approved conservation project in Peru promoted as a success story for the deforestation it helped to halt resulted in the displacement of local landowners. Corporations like Chevron, the second-largest fossil fuel company in the U.S., purchase carbon credits to bolster their claims of carbon neutrality. But an analysis by the watchdog group Corporate Accountability found that these credits were backed by questionable carbon capture technologies and that Chevron is ignoring the emissions that will result from the burning of the fossil fuels it produces.

Tropical forest of Gorgona Island, Colombia.
Tropical forests of Gorgona Island, Colombia. Companies looking to compensate for, or “offset,” their emissions can purchase credits that are certified by groups like Verra on voluntary markets. Verra is supposed to manage projects through, for example, initiatives to protect or restore tropical forests. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

An ongoing focus for Verra and other organizations involved in the generation and sale of carbon credits has been boosting the “integrity” of those credits. The Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market (ICVCM) published a new set of “core carbon principles” in March. And in April, Verra updated its REDD methodology for the first time since 2009. Short for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation,” REDD projects are aimed at forest protection and restoration, allowing the sale of carbon credits through voluntary markets backed by the calculated carbon reductions or sequestration gains.

“We seek to establish the best possible standards through transparent, open consultation across civil society and the corporate sector,” Antonioli said in an April statement, “and we are confident the draft changes announced today are the next critical step in that ongoing journey of reflection and improvement.”

Voluntary carbon markets, which in 2021 reached a collective peak value of $2 billion, have also been criticized for the opacity with which the groups involved in trading, marketing and promoting carbon credits and the projects that underpin them operate. A February 2023 report by the nonprofit Carbon Market Watch found that only 10% of these “intermediaries” disclose their fees, leading to questions about how much of the market’s value actually spurs work to address climate change.

“Ultimately, what we should care about is how much money is flowing to climate action,” Gilles Dufrasne, Carbon Market Watch’s policy lead for global carbon markets and the author’s report, told Mongabay in February. “It’s a bit crazy that nobody is measuring this.”

These new revelations have compounded the confusion about how the voluntary carbon market operates and contributed to the hesitancy of some corporations to put resources toward climate change mitigation. Findings of a survey of companies published in January 2023 found that they want to invest in carbon credits, but are wary of doing so because of concerns about integrity and, specifically, being accused of greenwashing if the credits are found to contribute less to climate change mitigation than claimed.

At the same time, some researchers and policymakers say it won’t be possible to stay below a global temperature rise of less than 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels without vastly increasing the amount of investment in climate change mitigation efforts. James Grabert, the director of mitigation at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said he hopes to see growth in carbon markets. But he acknowledged that improvements have to be made.

“It’s about trust, and trust will only come if we have a high level of integrity, combined with transparency in what’s happening,” Grabert said, speaking at the World Bank’s Innovate4Climate (I4C) conference taking place this week in Bilbao, Spain.

“We’ve seen some scrutiny of the markets lately, and I think this is a good thing,” he added. “I think the scrutiny will help drive this integrity that’s needed.”

Aerial view of coal mining in Borneo, Indonesia.
Aerial view of coal mining in Borneo, Indonesia. Fossil fuel companies purchase carbon credits to bolster their claims of carbon neutrality. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

A global group of Indigenous groups recently issued an open letter in support of REDD+ programming. They argue that REDD+ projects have brought gains in economic development, forest protection and land rights recognition in some cases, while opening up funding flows from carbon credit sales. Research has shown that minimal financing intended for climate change mitigation ends up in the hands of Indigenous and local communities, despite the outsize role they can play in safeguarding key repositories of carbon like tropical forests.

At I4C on May 24, Sonja Gibbs, the managing director and head of sustainable finance at the Institute of International Finance, said voluntary markets could provide a potential solution to that issue. (The Institute of International Finance is a global organization comprising 400 members from the financial industry.)

“Carbon credit markets have tremendous potential to scale private capital flows for emerging and developing economies,” said Gibbs, who is also an ICVCM board member. “If there’s one thing that we need for climate action, it’s certainly that.”

Now, with growing scrutiny of voluntary markets and the processes behind them, their voices need to be heard, said Deborah Sanchez, coordinator of forest, climate and biodiversity with the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests.

“We think that we need to talk about integrity, but from our perspective, bringing the definition [of integrity] from Indigenous peoples and local communities [and] what really this means for us,” Sanchez told Mongabay.

Banner image: David Antonioli at COP15 in 2009. Image by Dave Sag via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Carbon credits from award-winning Kenyan offset suspended by Verra

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