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How nonprofit journalism revealed many problems with the UN’s climate neutrality claims

Smoke from a factory chimney.

Image by JuergenPM via Pixabay (Public domain).

  • Despite claiming to be 95% “climate neutral,” the United Nations — a long-standing and vocal proponent of climate action — isn’t, a new report has found.
  • Mongabay teamed up with reporters at The New Humanitarian in a yearlong investigation spanning multiple countries to investigate the U.N.’s claims.
  • The investigation found that many projects that issue carbon credits to the U.N. were linked to environmental damage or displacement, and 2.7 million out of 6.6 million credits were linked to wind or hydropower — which experts say don’t represent true emissions reductions.
  • Investigative reporter Jacob Goldberg from The New Humanitarian joins the podcast to explain how the team arrived at these surprising findings.

The United Nations consistently champions global climate action, urging nations across the globe to adopt commitments to reducing emissions. The intergovernmental organization has proclaimed itself 95% or more “climate neutral” every year since 2018 in its annual emissions report.

However, this important global leader is not, in fact, leading on this vital topic. Jacob Goldberg from The New Humanitarian joins Mongabay’s podcast to detail this wide-ranging investigation that explains why.

Listen here:

Teaming up with Mongabay, reporters at The New Humanitarian obtained and analyzed around 75% of the U.N.’s offset portfolio from a total of 33 different U.N. entities. Reporters found that 2.7 million of the 6.6 million carbon credits analyzed were issued by wind or hydropower projects. Experts say these should not be considered offsets since the projects themselves don’t require the revenue of carbon credits to be built: they would have been built anyway.

On top of this, more than a dozen projects that issued carbon credits to the U.N. had links to environmental damage or displacement. Goldberg says the U.N. has yet to comment on any of the projects reporters have asked about.

Additionally, the U.N. only spent an average of $1.30 per credit, and some of these were purchased for as little as 12 cents. Experts told our reporters that at prices this low, one cannot realistically remove a metric ton of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

“[T]he only reason it would be priced that low is because it’s not doing anything,” Goldberg says.

Even the very idea of using carbon credits to serve as the basis of an organization’s climate neutrality is in itself questionable, as research and studies increasingly show their ineffectiveness at offsetting emissions, versus taking direct action to reduce them.

Eucalyptus plantations have been described as “green deserts,” preserving little native biodiversity. And while the United Nations counts tree farms as carbon sinks, researchers and activists say that native vegetation provides better sequestration than eucalyptus. Image by Cássio Abreu via Flickr.

“Some critics say that carbon credits don’t reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They actually serve as permission for organizations to put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Goldberg says.

Media scrutiny of carbon credits has called into question the legitimacy of their usage as a solution, sometimes generating irate or frustrated reactions. This is all despite the fact that experts say direct reductions are the most effective measure an organization can take.

“There’s another reaction I’ve gotten which is that ‘Why would you investigate this? Obviously, carbon credits don’t do anything … who cares if the U.N. is using them? They’re not the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. You should go after the energy companies,’” Goldberg says.

“And my response to that is that it’s quite notable that the U.N. is behind the times on this. Carbon credits came and then went out of fashion over the last 10 or so years and now everybody knows they are dubious, but the U.N. still stands by them.”

Read the investigation here:

Revealed: Why the UN is not climate neutral

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Mike DiGirolamo is Mongabay’s audience engagement associate. Find him on LinkedInBlueskyMastodonInstagram and TikTok.

Banner Image: More than half of the UN carbon offsets come from high-risk projects. Image by JuergenPM via Pixabay (Public domain).

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