Rumble in the Jungle Over Carbon Offsets

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    Stockholm (NordSIP) – Carbon offsets are controversial.  If constructed, managed and implemented properly they can make a lot of sense.  A greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting entity like a company or a municipality can do its utmost to reduce its environmental impact through concrete changes to its practices, working towards short and long-term targets.  In the interim period any emissions that cannot be avoided can be offset through the financing of environmental projects.  However, offsets are also sometimes used as some sort of “magic pill” that encourages business-as-usual behaviour with a clear conscience.  A new study also casts major doubt on the effectiveness and legitimacy of the whole process.

    Are most offsets effectively worthless?

    The UK’s Guardian newspaper, Germany’s Die Zeit and investigative journalist organisation SourceMaterial spent nine months analysing existing scientific studies of the work of Verra, the administrator of the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS).  The VCS is the world’s largest carbon crediting programme.  The investigators focused their attention on three studies that used satellite imagery to evaluate forest-based offsetting schemes operating under the UN-approved Redd+ framework.  The principal aim of the underlying projects is to prevent deforestation that would otherwise happen, and that is otherwise taking place in the same region at a measurable pace.  This avoided deforestation forms the basic currency for calculating the carbon offsets.

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    The results of the analysis were published under a fairly damning headline: “Revealed: more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by biggest provider are worthless.”  One of the criticisms that emerged in their analysis concerned the reference areas used to measure the avoided deforestation.  For instance, an isolated protected area might be compared with a distant reference area, itself subject to high levels of deforestation due to the presence of roads and rivers, which facilitate access.  The journalists’ work was supplemented by analysis from academics from various universities including Cambridge and North Carolina State, and the team excluded projects and studies that they felt lacked sufficient information to be properly evaluated.

    Dissenting voices

    Nevertheless, the study has been met with a mixed reaction.  As would be expected, Verra strongly refutes the claims, citing among other objections a lack of consideration of site-specific project characteristics.  Somewhere in the middle lies carbon credit ratings firm Sylvera, which believes the Guardian’s claim that 94% of REDD+ credits do not represent genuine carbon emission reductions is “hugely overstated.”  In their response to the article, they broadly acknowledge that there is a problem in the carbon offsets market.  However, their view is that around a third of current projects are legitimate and effective in combating climate change.

    The Laundromat touched on the subject of dodgy offsets when we looked at the Qatar World Cup’s carbon neutrality claims.  It is a touchy subject and offsetting is indeed prone to misuse, but there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater with this type of headline.  If people lose all faith in the process, many essential nature-related conservation projects could be starved of capital.  The answer, as in many other areas of sustainability lies in proper accountability.  Hopefully this bad press will spur organisations like Verra to tighten their procedures and methodology.  Carbon offsets cannot replace climate change mitigation, but they remain an essential item in the sustainability toolbox.


    Image courtesy of Iván Tamás from Pixabay
    Richard Tyszkiewicz
    Richard Tyszkiewicz
    Richard has over 30 years’ experience in the international investment industry. He has worked closely with major Nordic investors on consultancy projects, focusing on the evaluation of external asset managers. While doing so, Richard built up a strong practical understanding of the challenges faced by institutional investors seeking to integrate ESG into their portfolios. Richard has an MA degree in Management and Spanish from St Andrews University, and sustainability qualifications from Cambridge University, PRI and the CFA Institute.
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