Amazon rainforest from above

Carbon credits ineffective at protecting global forests, research finds

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Rainforest carbon credits generate inflated environmental impacts and can fail to protect indigenous communities, according to a new report.

Current rainforest protection carbon credit schemes are “not fit for purpose” and lead the door open to exploitation, an investigation conducted by 14 University of Berkeley researchers and funded by the non-profit Carbon Market Watch (CMW) has found. 

The researchers looked at the impact of rainforest carbon credits certified by Verra, which operates the world’s leading carbon standard. Their conclusions – first reported by The Guardian – stressed the need for a new approach to carbon offsetting that will better protect rainforest ecosystems, such as the Amazon and the Congo Basin. 

“An in-depth study of the main methodologies used by REDD+ forest conservation projects has exposed a series of shortcomings that allow project owners to stretch reality and create a vast quantity of carbon credits for projects that have questionable climate impacts,” CMW said

The researchers assessed five features of Verra’s rainforest carbon credit system, known as REDD+: durability, forest carbon accounting, community safeguards, deforestation leakage and baselines. Their conclusions found that the system generates highly inflated environmental impacts and opens the door to exploitation in all of the mentioned features.

The report states that the majority of carbon credits purchased did not have a positive impact on the climate. This is due to the fact that projects routinely underplayed the risk of displacing deforestation elsewhere, and auditors often failed to enforce Verra’s rules.

Some projects also failed to provide safeguards for vulnerable forest communities, making them unsuitable for companies to use for carbon offsetting claims. 

“The research shows that the current rules governing REDD+ projects seriously lack credibility and cannot be trusted to generate high-quality carbon credits,” said Inigo Wyburd, policy expert at CMW. “Businesses are offsetting their emissions on the cheap by buying low-quality carbon credits connected to forest protection projects in the Global South.”

“When only one in every 13 carbon credits represents a real emissions reduction, their action is lost in the forest.”

The main problem with the system was said to be the large flexibility that methodologies allow. This means project owners can choose the methodology and impact parameters they want to use, leading to measurements regarding deforestation levels that vary by more than 1,400 per cent between the highest and lowest baseline estimates, the report found.

“Large uncertainty in climate benefit calculations creates many opportunities for market participants to choose assumptions that inflate credits issued,” said Barbara Haya, leader of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project. “Drawing on all evidence, we conclude that REDD+ is ill-suited for carbon offsetting.”

The researchers have called on governments and businesses to focus on curbing the drivers of deforestation around the world and supporting indigenous communities’ efforts to conserve forests, rather than buying offsets.

CMW’s policy lead on global carbon markets Gilles Dufrasne said “offsetting should be axed”. 

“It cannot work in its current form, and carbon markets must evolve into something different,” he stressed. “The focus should be on getting money to the right place, rather than getting as many credits as possible.”

The charity also sent a formal complaint to Verra, asking it to “execute its grievance mechanism to address serious shortcomings in a number of REDD+ projects”.

Verra told The Guardian it welcomed the scrutiny of the scientific and environmental community on its work. It also published a technical response to the study and stressed that many of the issues highlighted in the report would be dealt with in the new methodology for generating carbon credits, which it will be publishing in the next few weeks. 

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