Roughly 90% of Rainforest Carbon Offsets Certified by Biggest Provider Are “Worthless,” Study Finds

by Vins
Published: Updated:

About ninety percent of rainforest carbon offsets certified by Verra, the world’s largest offset certifier, do not reflect real reductions in emissions, according to a report produced jointly by the Guardian, Source Material, 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 represents a reduction of one metric ton 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, Source Material, and Die Zeit analyzed the only three scientific studies to use robust, scientifically sound methods to assess the impact of carbon offsets on deforestation. At the same time the journalists also consulted with indigenous communities, industry insiders, and scientists.

One scientific study which analyzed 29 Verra rainforest offset projects found that 21 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 eighty percent more climate benefit than claimed. Overall, this 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 Cambridge University found that in 32 of the forest offset projects they investigated, the claims concerning forest protection and emission reductions were over standard by an average of 400 percent. Furthermore, investigative journalists at Source Material found that 32 offset projects which, combined, claimed to protect an area of rainforest the size of Italy in reality only protected an area the size of Venice.

A multitude of large corporations—including Disney, Shell, Gucci, Salesforce, Netflix, and United Airlines, among others—have purchased Verra rainforest carbon credits, most of which do not reflect real emissions.

The incentives to overstate the climate benefits of these carbon offsets are numerous for Verra, which both sets the standards for and subsequently profits from the sale of offsets. In fact, in the case of one project on the shores of Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, the threat to protected rainforest lands was overstated by thirtyfold. On the ground project managers claim that they originally intended to report that the project would offset 52 metric tons of carbon emissions, though Verra subsequently instructed them to recalculate the impact, inducing the managers to report that the project would offset 197 million metric tons.

As of March 23, 2023 no corporate outlets have reported on this finding.

Sources:

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,” Source Material, January 13, 2023.

Tin Fischer and Hannah Knuth, “Disguised Green” (“Grün Getarnt” in original), Die Zeit, January 18, 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)