- A new assessment conducted by Rainforest Foundation UK raises fresh concerns about the validity of carbon offsetting schemes.
- The campaign group claims that all the leading carbon credit verification schemes have allowed millions of credits to enter the voluntary carbon market which do not accurately represent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
- RFUK is calling for a shift in emphasis to measures like global carbon levies and debt relief for poor countries, which it says would address root causes of emissions.
- Verra and several REDD+ project managers told Mongabay RFUK’s analysis is ideologically motivated, insisting that while verifying credits is not perfect, it is producing genuine, positive results.
Six months ago, journalists from the Guardian, Die ZEIT and SourceMaterial published data showing that up to 90% of the carbon credits issued by Verra, the world’s largest certifying agency, are worthless. Now the Rainforest Foundation UK says three other verfication schemes — the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, the UNFCCC REDD+ Results system, as well as the newer verification program ART — can misrepresent the real-life impact of carbon offsets.
The UK-based campaign group says manipulated baselines and structural flaws in the validation and verification of projects have resulted in the release of millions of credits onto the voluntary carbon market, that do not match real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
“All of the schemes can to some extent be ‘gamed’ to generate non-meaningful credits, adding to climate change, and do not supply the steady stream of funding needed to protect forests, particularly those that rely on voluntary carbon markets,” RFUK CEO Joe Eisen told Mongabay.
The report includes Gabon as an example. The Central African country issued 90.6 million REDD+ results-based credits verified by the UNFCCC’s REDD+ program last year.
According to RFUK, the UNFCCC’s technical experts found “methodological anomalies” in the baseline values used by the Gabonese government to calculate “increased carbon removal” resulting from policies that reduced logging activity and deforestation, but these did not prevent the verification of the credits.
“All [verification schemes], to a greater or lesser extent allow, or actively rely on, inflation or artificial ‘adjustment’ of baselines in order to create the impression of, or to increase, the claimed emissions reductions,” the report reads.
REDD+ stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation,” with the “+” representing activities around conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. Carbon credits generated from REDD+ projects make up a large portion of credits available on the voluntary carbon market where they can be traded and used by companies and individuals to mitigate their carbon footprint.
Simon Counsell, former director of RFUK and expert on conservation, human rights and nature-based solutions, led a team which measured the four carbon credit verification programs against 13 criteria Counsell’s team developed, including requirements for additionality (the crucial question of determining what a project adds to already-existing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) and mechanisms to ensure that a REDD project has positive effects for Indigenous peoples and local communities, and the environment.
The team also assessed each scheme’s provisions for ensuring deforestation and carbon storage achieved by a project are permanent, enduring in the long run, after it has been verified.
Jo Anderson, co-founder of CarbonTanzania, a social enterprise which has implemented three offset projects in East Africa, two of which are certified under Verra’s scheme, said that the new report’s findings are ideologically motivated and oversimplified. Referring to a recent statement from indigenous communities in support of REDD+ schemes, he said that there is evidence that climate finance can achieve measurable results.
“We are all working towards using models and monitoring processes that lead to an ever-increasing accuracy of our estimates of emission reductions,” Anderson said.
“Currently, the system is not perfect, but it is improving,” wrote Ana Haurie, the CEO of carbon business Respira International, in an email to Mongabay. “In a crisis that requires an urgent response, the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM) is one of the best tools available right now to protect and restore the world’s natural carbon capture technology — forests.”
Mongabay also contacted all four certifying bodies, and received responses from Verra and ART (Architecture for REDD+ Transactions).
In an emailed response, a spokesperson for ART’s Secretariat strongly disagreed with the most recent criticism. They defended their TREES standard as one aligned with the Paris Agreement on climate change and market-based mechanisms more generally as key to raising the finance needed to reduce deforestation. “[RFUK’s] position against market-based approaches and support for only non-market approaches misses the need for rapid action on both fronts. There is no pathway to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Accord without halting deforestation in the next decade, and market mechanisms are critical to support this outcome,” the secretariat wrote.
“We understand the system is not perfect,” wrote Anne Thiel, a Verra spokeperson, in an email. “REDD is based on a counterfactual scenario; it is an approach that seeks to prevent something from happening. The calculation of emission reductions that result from this work is inevitably less clear-cut than in other cases.”
Verra recently announced that it is updating its REDD methodology. The certifier says that the new rules that will come into force by 2025 will have a different approach to baseline-setting. The non-profit has hired the US-based consultancy Aster Global Environmental Solutions to audit their new offset rules. However, Aster has been linked to cases of inflating emissions reductions in Zimbabwe and approving a project in Kenya despite community concerns.
“We will have to see whether this makes the fundamental changes that are required or is just more tinkering around the edges of a flawed system,” Eisen said.
He suggested that it is time to assess the viability of non-market alternatives, like debt relief for poor countries and global levies on fossil fuel extraction, which would tackle the underlying causes of climate change while working with Indigenous peoples to protect forests.
This story was updated on July 31 to include comment from ART.
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