The forest carbon offsets approved by the world’s leading provider and used by Disney, Shell, Gucci and other big corporations are largely worthless and could make global heating worse, according to a new investigation.
The research into Verra, the world’s leading carbon standard for the rapidly growing $2bn (£1.6bn) voluntary offsets market, has found that, based on analysis of a significant percentage of the projects, more than 90% of their rainforest offset credits – among the most commonly used by companies – are likely to be “phantom credits” and do not represent genuine carbon reductions.
The analysis raises questions over the credits bought by a number of internationally renowned companies – some of them have labelled their products “carbon neutral”, or have told their consumers they can fly, buy new clothes or eat certain foods without making the climate crisis worse.
But doubts have been raised repeatedly over whether they are really effective.
The nine-month investigation has been undertaken by the Guardian, the German weekly Die Zeit and SourceMaterial, a non-profit investigative journalism organisation. It is based on new analysis of scientific studies of Verra’s rainforest schemes.
Verra argues that the conclusions reached by the studies are incorrect, and questions their methodology. And they point out that their work since 2009 has allowed billions of dollars to be channelled to the vital work of preserving forests.
The investigation found that:
- Only a handful of Verra’s rainforest projects showed evidence of deforestation reductions, according to two studies, with further analysis indicating that 94% of the credits had no benefit to the climate.
- The threat to forests had been overstated by about 400% on average for Verra projects, according to analysis of a 2022 University of Cambridge study.
- Gucci, Salesforce, BHP, Shell, easyJet, Leon and the band Pearl Jam were among dozens of companies and organisations that have bought rainforest offsets approved by Verra for environmental claims.
- Human rights issues are a serious concern in at least one of the offsetting projects. The Guardian visited a flagship project in Peru, and was shown videos that residents said showed their homes being cut down with chainsaws and ropes by park guards and police. They spoke of forced evictions and tensions with park authorities.
Two different groups of scientists – one internationally based, the other from Cambridge in the UK – looked at a total of about two-thirds of 87 Verra-approved active projects. A number were left out by the researchers when they felt there was not enough information available to fairly assess them.
The two studies from the international group of researchers found just eight out of 29 Verra-approved projects where further analysis was possible showed evidence of meaningful deforestation reductions.
The journalists were able to do further analysis on those projects, comparing the estimates made by the offsetting projects with the results obtained by the scientists. The analysis indicated about 94% of the credits the projects produced should not have been approved.
Credits from 21 projects had no climate benefit, seven had between 98% and 52% fewer than claimed using Verra’s system, and one had 80% more impact, the investigation found.
Separately, the study by the University of Cambridge team of 40 Verra projects found that while a number had stopped some deforestation, the areas were extremely small. Just four projects were responsible for three-quarters of the total forest that was protected.
The journalists again analysed these results more closely and found that, in 32 projects where it was possible to compare Verra’s claims with the study finding, baseline scenarios of forest loss appeared to be overstated by about 400%. Three projects in Madagascar have achieved excellent results and have a significant impact on the figures. If those projects are not included, the average inflation is about 950%.
Barbara Haya, the director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, has been researching carbon credits for 20 years, hoping to find a way to make the system function. She said: “The implications of this analysis are huge. Companies are using credits to make claims of reducing emissions when most of these credits don’t represent emissions reductions at all.
“Rainforest protection credits are the most common type on the market at the moment. And it’s exploding, so these findings really matter. But these problems are not just limited to this credit type. These problems exist with nearly every kind of credit.
“One strategy to improve the market is to show what the problems are and really force the registries to tighten up their rules so that the market could be trusted. But I’m starting to give up on that. I started studying carbon offsets 20 years ago studying problems with protocols and programs. Here I am, 20 years later having the same conversation. We need an alternative process. The offset market is broken.”