#5 – Certified Rainforest Carbon Offsets Mostly “Worthless”

by Shealeigh

About 90 percent of rainforest carbon offsets certified by Verra, the world’s largest offset certifier, do not reflect real reductions in emissions, according to reports produced jointly by the Guardian, SourceMaterial, and Die Zeit in January 2023, with subsequent coverage from Truthout. Verra, which runs the Verified Carbon Standard that has issued more than one billion metric tons worth of carbon offsets, certifies three-fourths of all voluntary carbon offsets.

Overall, the investigative reports found that where Verra claimed to have certified 94.9 million credits—each of which is supposed to represent a one-metric ton reduction of carbon emissions—the actual benefits of the projects validated by Verra amounted to a much more modest 5.5 million credits. To assess the efficacy of Verra’s carbon offset certification program, investigative journalists from the Guardian, SourceMaterial, and Die Zeit analyzed the only three scientific studies to use robust, scientifically sound methods to assess the impact of carbon offsets on deforestation. The journalists also consulted with indigenous communities, industry insiders, and scientists.

The investigation of twenty-nine Verra rainforest offset projects found that twenty-one had no climate benefit, seven had significantly less climate benefit than claimed (by margins of 52 to 98 percent less benefit than claimed), while one project yielded 80 percent more climate benefit than claimed. Overall, the study concluded that 94 percent of the credits approved by these projects were “worthless” and never should have been approved.

Another study conducted by a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge found that in thirty-two of the forty forest offset projects investigated, the claims concerning forest protection and emission reductions were overstated by an average of 400 percent. Despite claims that these thirty-two projects together protected an area of rainforest the size of Italy, they only protected an area the size of Venice. Verra has criticized the studies’ conclusions and questioned their methodology.

Several internationally renowned corporations—including Disney, Shell, Gucci, Salesforce, Netflix, and United Airlines, among others—have purchased Verra rainforest carbon credits.

Because Verra sets the standards for offset programs and profits from them, it has an incentive to overstate the climate benefits of carbon offsets. In one project on the shores of Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, for example, the threat to protected rainforest lands was massively overstated. Project managers on the ground claimed to have originally intended to report that the project would offset fifty-two metric tons of carbon emissions, but Verra instructed them to recalculate the impact, prompting the managers to report that the project would offset 197 million metric tons.

In separate coverage, SourceMaterial reported that a reforestation project in the Republic of the Congo, promoted by the French energy company TotalEnergies, displaced more than four hundred local farmers, some of whom told reporters they received the equivalent of as little as one dollar per hectare in compensation, or nothing at all in some cases, for their land, undermining their livelihoods and local food security in the name of fighting climate change [Note: We thank Santo Carroccia and Lisa Lynch of Drew University for bringing this story to Project Censored’s attention].

The investigations by the Guardian, Die Zeit, and SourceMaterial appear to have made a difference. In March 2023, Verra announced that it would phase out its flawed rainforest offset program by mid-2025. A senior Verra spokesperson made the announcement “amid growing scrutiny of the carbon offsetting sector’s ability to mitigate climate breakdown,” according to the Guardian, which noted that the multibillion-dollar carbon offset industry is unregulated and, according to insiders, “rife with conflicts of interest.”

Nevertheless, establishment news outlets have almost entirely ignored the findings of the joint investigation by the Guardian, Die Zeit, and SourceMaterial, while offering a mixed assessment of carbon offset programs more generally. In September 2022, the Wall Street Journal reported that “companies looking to offset their emissions are buying credits in vast numbers that do little to help neutralize their carbon output.” By contrast, in an October 2022 article on “the bold promises” of carbon offset programs, Time described how Verra and other major carbon offset organizations only certify “scientifically sound” projects “with permanent, measurable emissions that are conservatively estimated—meaning the methodology doesn’t overestimate the climate benefits of the project.” The subsequent investigation by the Guardian, Die Zeit, and SourceMaterial casts serious doubt on Time magazine’s bold assertion.

In January 2023, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial that briefly addressed the joint investigation by the Guardian, Die Zeit, and SourceMaterial in light of (inaccurate) reports that the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission was preparing to issue a ban on gas stoves [Note: On the panic, promoted by Republican lawmakers, see, e.g., Nikki McCann Ramirez, “No, the Government Is Not Seizing Your Gas Stove,” Rolling Stone, January 11, 2023]. The Tribune’s editorial is the only example Project Censored has been able to document of a major US newspaper acknowledging the finding that more than 90 percent of Verra’s certified rainforest offsets are “phantom credits” that “do not represent genuine carbon reductions.”

Patrick Greenfield, “Revealed: More than 90% Of Rainforest Carbon Offsets by Biggest Certifier Are Worthless, Analysis Shows,” The Guardian, January 18, 2023.

“The Carbon Con,” SourceMaterial, January 18, 2023.

Tin Fischer and Hannah Knuth, “Disguised Green” (“Grün Getarnt”), Die Zeit, January 18, 2023, updated May 1, 2023.

Sharon Zhang, “Report: 94 Percent of Big Provider’s Rainforest Carbon Offsets Don’t Cut Carbon,” Truthout, January 18, 2023.

Student Researcher: Annie Koruga (Ohlone College)

Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)