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94% Of Forest-Based Carbon Offsets Certified By Leading Global Provider Are ‘Phantom Credits’

Above Photo: The rainforest canopy. RollingEarth / Getty Images.

Are carbon offsets a useful tool on the road to net zero or simply another form of greenwashing?

A new investigation from The GuardianDie Zeit and SourceMaterial leads heavily toward the latter conclusion. The report, published Wednesday, found that more than 90 percent of the rainforest offset credits offered by top carbon standard Verra are actually what The Guardian called “phantom credits” that don’t actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“The implications of this analysis are huge,” Barbara Haya, who leads the Carbon Trading Project at the University of California, Berkeley, told SourceMaterial. “Companies are making false claims and then they’re convincing customers that they can fly guilt-free or buy carbon-neutral products when they aren’t in any way carbon-neutral.”

Verra currently certifies three-quarters of all carbon credits issued worldwide, according to SourceMaterial. This means that it considers a proposed carbon offset project–often the protection of at-risk forest–and issues it with a certain number of carbon credits equal to the tonnes of carbon dioxide it will remove or prevent from entering the atmosphere. These credits are then added to a global database that companies can purchase from to offset their emissions on the $2 billion voluntary carbon market. Verra certified one billion credits as of November of 2022, and these have been purchased by major companies including Gucci, British Airways, Disney, United Airlines, Air France, Samsung, Liverpool Football Club, Ben & Jerry’s, Netflix and Chevron.

Forty percent of Verra’s credits are generated by protecting rainforest. However, there is an inherent difficulty in verifying that protecting a forest would really offset emissions because it means somehow proving that the forest would definitely be felled without the financial support from the credit. Verra competitor Gold Standard won’t certify carbon credits based on avoiding deforestation, SourceMaterial pointed out.

The investigation, which took nine months to complete, looked specifically at three studies that used satellite images to verify the effectiveness of Verra’s forest-protection-based credits specifically, The Guardian explained. It backed this up with on-the-ground interviews and additional research.

Two studies by an international team of researchers looked at forest projects totalling an advertised 95 million carbon credits, which should be enough to cancel out the yearly emissions of 25 coal plants, according to SourceMaterials. The studies assessed how much deforestation the projects actually prevented and therefore how many carbon credits they should have received. When the journalists compared the scientists’ numbers with Verra’s claims during the study period, they found that 94 percent of the Verra-certified credits likely did nothing to mitigate the climate crisis.

The second study, from a University of Cambridge-based team, looked at 40 projects and found that only four of them were responsible for 75 percent of the forest actually protected, according to The Guardian. The journalists concluded that, for 32 of the projects, the risk of forest loss was puffed up by around 400 percent.

“It’s safe to say there are strong discrepancies between what we’re calculating and what exists in their databases, and that is a matter for concern and further investigation. I think in the longer term, what we want is a consensus set of methods which are applied across all sites,” University of Cambridge forest ecology Professor David Coomes, who was a senior author on the Cambridge study, told The Guardian.

In addition to giving companies and consumers a false sense that they are offsetting real emissions, there were also human rights concerns about at least one Verra project considered by the investigation. Some forest dwellers in Alto Mayo, Peru, said they were forcibly evicted as part of a Verra-certified forest protection project there, that covered nearly 40 percent of Disney’s offsets between 2012 and 2020, as The Guardian reported further. Journalists spoke to a 39-year-old coffee farmer and father of eight named Abel Carrasco whose home was demolished by police in 2021, according to a video of the incident he shared with The Guardian.

“My children begged them but [the police] said they had to follow their orders,” Carrasco said. “They told us to get our things ready and leave. They said it’s a protected forest, nobody can be here. That’s why you’ve got to go.”

In response to the investigation, Verra said that the methodology of the studies did now allow them to reflect the reality on the ground. That is because the studies use “synthetic controls,” which compare the protected area to a control scenario as opposed to real, unprotected forests.

“Verra is disappointed to see the publication of an article in the Guardian, developed with Die Zeit and SourceMaterial, incorrectly claiming that REDD+ projects are consistently and substantively over-issuing carbon credits,” the certifier said. “Verra worked closely with both publications in the run-up to the publication to explain why this claim is untrue, as it is based on studies that use a ‘synthetic control’ approach or similar methods.”

However, lead author on the two international studies Thales West said that Verra needed to prove that its way of assigning credits was actually more reliable.

“I wanted to know if we could trust their predictions,” West told SourceMaterial. “The evidence from the synthetic controls suggests we cannot.”

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