- Major registries in the carbon offset market are systematically over-crediting projects and delivering dubious carbon offsets, allowing some companies to claim more climate benefits than deserved, according to a new report.
- A group of researchers led by Barbara Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, studied nearly 300 carbon offset projects across the world that comprise 11% of all carbon offset credits to date.
- Carbon offset projects allow businesses and governments to balance out their own carbon emissions by supporting green initiatives that reduce or sequester an equal amount of carbon pollution.
Major registries in the carbon offset market are systematically over-crediting projects and delivering dubious carbon offsets, a practice that allows some companies to make unjustified claims of climate progress, according to a new report published Tuesday in the journal Frontiers in Forests and Global Change.
A group of researchers led by Barbara Haya, director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, studied nearly 300 carbon offset projects across the world that comprise 11% of all carbon offset credits to date.
Carbon offset projects allow businesses and governments to balance out their carbon emissions by supporting green initiatives that reduce or sequester an equal amount of carbon pollution. Standards are upheld by groups that have their own registries and are largely unregulated.
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The report comes amid repeated concerns over whether carbon offsets are an accurate and effective way to mitigate climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
Voluntary carbon offset programs have been widely criticized as insufficiently regulated schemes that allow governments and corporations to undermine net-zero emission targets. For instance, some reports suggest that land managers are not changing their logging practices in some forests where offsets were purchased. Officials, researchers and environmental groups have called for stricter standards.
The researchers assessed carbon offset credits from forest management programs, which typically fall into three broad categories: conserving existing forests, boosting forests through processes like reforestation, and changing the management of existing forests to increase carbon sinks in forests.
They found that in the current unregulated market, flexible rules have resulted in a major portion of credits being generated from claims that projects prevent forest carbon loss with large reductions in timber harvesting. Such projects look more similar to conservation or avoided degradation projects than to improved forest management, the report said.
"While these baselines might be accurate for some projects with potential for real climate benefit, the flexibility all protocols give can lead to significant over-crediting," the researchers wrote. They suggested that more conservative baselines can substantially reduce — but not resolve — over-crediting risk.
Three voluntary offset market registries have generated the vast majority of offset credits globally to date: American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve and Verified Carbon Standard, the report said. Each has offset protocols generating credits for voluntary use.
All three are also registries for the California Air Resources Board offset program, and manage the monitoring, reporting and verification processes for offset credits that can be used by the state's emitters to meet California's cap-and-trade emissions targets.
Researchers found that the registries did not follow standards to make sure projects have a real and tangible impact on carbon levels or confirm that credits were funding programs that otherwise wouldn't have occurred.