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Forest carbon offsets used by Shell, Salesforce, and others are said to be ‘largely worthless’

A new report drawing from peer-reviewed research raises credibility problems for the largest provider of carbon offsets.

Forest carbon offsets used by Shell, Salesforce, and others are said to be ‘largely worthless’
[Source photo: John Towner/Unsplash]

Carbon offsets offered by the globe’s largest provider of them—Verra—are facing a major new credibility problem. Journalists at the GuardianDie Zeit, and the nonprofit SourceMaterial say that based on nine months of analysis, at least 90% of Verra’s rainforest offset credits effectively amount to nothing. These credits, they write, demonstrate “no benefit to the climate,” and many could actually contribute to global warming rather than reduce it.

Holders of Verra’s carbon credits include oil giant Shell, Salesforce, Gucci, Disney, Netflix, and Ben & Jerry’s. Even the rock band Pearl Jam and the USDA just included Verra in a $70 million project aimed at building “climate-smart commodities.” A number of corporations that market their products and services as “carbon-neutral” cite Verra’s credits. Verra has issued over one billion of them since 2009, the year it was founded.

This week’s report draws from peer-reviewedpublished work by scientists who gathered satellite imagery to verify the impact of Verra-approved rainforest projects, schemes that fall under the UN’s REDD+ program. The journalists also went to Peru to see Verra’s largest projects in person. They write that during the visit to one flagship project, they were shown videos of homes being destroyed by chainsaw-wielding authorities trying to evict the area’s residents.

Credits in Verra’s market—known as Verified Carbon Units—represent the tons of CO2 that approved projects claim weren’t emitted thanks to them. But the impact a project will have on deforestation is predicted by organizers themselves; calculations must use Verra’s rules, but once validated, they’re converted into credits for purchase—essentially, every ton of greenhouse gas saved is a ton the buyer may emit.

Companies looking to go net-zero have purchased record numbers of them from Verra, though the entire offset industry isn’t totally onboard: Last May, Gold Standard, a major carbon-offset certifier, said it refuses to certify REDD+ projects’ offsets, because these projects “actually cherrypick proxy areas.” The focus area used to estimate impact is often “set up to be most convenient to a project to maximize its baseline deforestation rate.”

The Guardian et al.’s investigation writes that, if you compare Verra’s estimated impact of projects to satellite images and outside scientists’ analysis, up to 94% of Verra’s carbon credits should never have been approved in the first place. Verra boasts 87 active projects; the report claims 32 exaggerated their baseline predictions of deforestation by an average of 400%. Three outlier projects in Madagascar actually achieved “excellent results,” though, meaning that if those were removed, the average exaggeration climbs to 950%.


For its part, Verra “strongly dispute[s]” the findings, which present a dilemma for businesses whose net-zero strategies rely on Verra’s reputation. Yesterday, it rejected the journalists’ claims, arguing they’re based on studies that ignore project-specific factors that cause deforestation. “As a result,” Verra wrote, “these studies massively miscalculate the impact of REDD+ projects.”

To prove its point, Verra has released charts supposedly showing the scientists’ flawed research:

The orange lines above are Verra’s “conservative” estimates for how much deforestation would’ve plagued these 12 regions of Peru if its approved projects hadn’t been operating there. The flat blue lines at the bottom indicate how much real-world deforestation was measured in similar areas at those same times. “Everybody is of course entitled to their own opinion,” writes Ten Fischer, one of Die Zeit‘s reporters.

But for Verra, these criticisms are old hat. In 2020, the Telegraph published a series that argued big offset providers like Verra had “fooled” consumers into believing their credits contribute meaningfully to a greener future. A Bloomberg investigation made a similar conclusion about “meaningless carbon offsets.” And the Guardian‘s own exposé comes after it ran an article last May that criticized airlines for relying on Verra’s system. Verra called that one a “fatally flawed” “hit piece.”

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