A new report finds the top 50 carbon offset programs are highly problematic — with nearly 80 percent “likely junk.”
In a recent probe, corporate watchdog group Corporate Accountability alongside The Guardian has presented startling findings on the effectiveness of leading carbon offset initiatives supported by corporations and governmental entities. Almost 80 percent of these programs, aimed at mitigating climate change through pollution reduction efforts, have been labeled as “likely junk or worthless.” This latest revelation brings to light the critical need to re-evaluate the strategies employed to tackle the climate crisis.
Carbon offset initiatives have traditionally been portrayed as a viable strategy to counterbalance carbon footprints by funding projects that diminish pollution elsewhere. Often forming part of the broader voluntary carbon market (VCM), these schemes have been criticized as tools that allow corporations to perpetuate oil and gas extraction without substantial accountability.
“The ramifications of this analysis are huge, as it points to systemic failings of the voluntary market, providing additional evidence that junk carbon credits pervade the market,” Anuradha Mittal, director of the Oakland Institute thinktank, told The Guardian. “We cannot afford to waste any more time on false solutions. The issues are far-reaching and pervasive, extending well beyond specific verifiers. The VCM is actively exacerbating the climate emergency.”
According to the findings, nearly 39 of the 50 top carbon offset projects have one or more core failings that severely compromise their capacity to deliver the projected emission reductions, rendering them “likely junk.” These projects either lack assurances of enduring, substantial greenhouse gas cuts or have other significant deficiencies. The Guardian notes that more than $1 billion worth of carbon credits that have already been traded are worthless.
Of the remaining projects of the 50 reviewed, eight were deemed problematic and the remaining three lacked sufficient public information to assess the quality of the credits, the report notes.
Rachel Rose Jackson, director of climate research and international policy at Corporate Accountability, underscored the severity of the findings stating that the world’s most prominent emitters continually hold up these schemes as pivotal solutions in the battle against climate change. She said the findings are “extremely damning of a scheme that the world’s largest emitters repeatedly tout as a lynchpin in solving the climate crisis.” Adding urgency to this issue, she said the VCM is proving “a dangerous diversion of political capital and time from the meaningful and just solutions needed to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis.”
Concerns have been raised regarding the potential for these projects to exacerbate the existing problems. Certain projects have been found to either potentially emit greenhouse gases or transfer emissions to other locations. The Guardian highlighted instances where climate advantages were seemingly overstated, or projects were seen to progress without any relation to the VCM.
The investigation highlighted specific cases of concern, including a Zimbabwean forest conservation project riddled with financial discrepancies and a U.S.-based carbon capture and storage facility in Wyoming, which despite receiving hefty taxpayer subsidies, has released a significant portion of the captured CO2 back into the atmosphere or channeled it to facilitate oil extraction by other fossil fuel entities.
What is carbon offsetting?
Carbon offsetting is a practice where companies, governments, and individuals attempt to counterbalance their carbon dioxide emissions by investing in projects or initiatives that are designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. These projects can range from renewable energy installations such as wind or solar farms to afforestation and reforestation projects that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The primary goal of carbon offsetting is to achieve a net zero carbon footprint, meaning that the amount of greenhouse gases emitted is equal to the amount being removed or prevented from entering the atmosphere. This approach has been adopted by various entities as a strategy to mitigate their environmental impact and contribute to the broader efforts to combat climate change.
However, the effectiveness and integrity of carbon offset projects have been a subject of scrutiny and debate, with critics arguing that they allow organizations to avoid making necessary reductions in their own emissions.
Carbon offsetting criticism
Skeptics of the practice argue that carbon offsetting allows corporations to essentially purchase a “moral license” to continue their polluting activities, without making real changes to reduce their carbon emissions at the source. This approach, critics say, detracts from the more pressing goal of lowering emissions outright.
That, on top of reports like this recent investigation, have found some overstate their impact or fail to deliver the promised benefits, raising concerns about their actual contribution to mitigating climate change. The methodologies used to calculate emission reductions can vary considerably, sometimes resulting in inaccurate representations of the project’s true environmental benefit.
Adding to the controversy is the potential for exploitation and injustice, particularly in projects based in developing countries. There have been instances where local communities were adversely affected, either through exploitation or violations of land rights, raising ethical questions about the reliance on offset projects as a solution to climate change.
Earlier this week, the People’s Forests Partnership announced the launch of the Equitable Earth Coalition — an effort aimed at buoying Indigenous practices in the carbon offset market by standardizing proven methods of deforestation prevention.
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