John Oliver Puts Punchlines Over Truth
Comedian John Oliver has a gift for turning boring but important news into comedy gold. Earlier this week, he built an episode around the voluntary carbon market and, in usual fashion, drew some loud guffaws. Like anything that is complicated, it is easy to cherry-pick items that help make a point or get a good laugh, but given the gravity of the climate crisis it is disappointing that he and his team built their episode around half-truths, outlier views, and selective evidence that distort the way the voluntary carbon market supports action on climate change.
Oliver’s “analysis” fails on two big counts. First, he misses the big picture. Second, he fails to understand some of the basic rules behind credible greenhouse gas (GHG) crediting.
The Big Picture
In the search for laughs, Oliver draws on sources that miss multiple obvious and important truths about the voluntary carbon market. The first is that all action in this market is purely voluntary: nobody is requiring any of the companies involved to do anything in respect of climate change. As a result, even one dollar of investment represents more than what would have otherwise happened.
Oliver is right to warn of greenwashing as companies that couldn’t previously be bothered to think about climate change scramble to look good. However, rather than explore how carbon offsets are typically used – as a complement to reductions that companies are making on their own – the episode repeats the inaccurate trope that all or most companies involved in the voluntary carbon market are simply relying on carbon offsets to neutralize their entire carbon footprint.
He bolsters this with the results of a survey showing low understanding of carbon markets among corporates, including those not yet engaged in the climate challenge, but ignores research showing that companies with a real and long history of using offsets have in place – and have achieved – more advanced reduction strategies than those that don’t. Companies using offsets also tend to use them in the way they are intended: to go beyond their internal reductions by offsetting emissions that are too costly or impossible to address with today’s technologies, otherwise known as residual emissions.
Instead of exploring this reality, Oliver criticizes companies like Disney, which joined the climate challenge long before it was popular and has been doing it right. The company has been slashing its internal emissions for a decade, yet Oliver rips it for offsetting some residual emissions by supporting The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC’s) conservation efforts.
Oliver goes on to accuse the sector, and greenhouse gas accounting programs (he calls them registries) in particular, of not being regulated and being accountable to no one, all while overlooking two incredibly prominent initiatives designed to do precisely what he says is missing, both on the supply and demand sides of the market:
- The Integrity Council for Voluntary Carbon Markets (IC-VCM) is working to ensure that all carbon credits in the market represent real emission reductions (or removals).
- The Voluntary Carbon Market Integrity Initiative (VCMI) is working to ensure that claims made by companies using offsets are accurate, thereby helping to ensure that the use of offsets complements internal reductions.
Both initiatives have been widely publicized and are currently running public consultations on their requirements. Indeed, the IC-VCM was initially launched as a task force led by Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England, while the VCMI is led in part by Rachel Kyte, current Dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, who also served as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and as Chief Executive Officer of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL). These may not be household names, but in conducting research on the market, Oliver and his team either completely failed to identify these initiatives or willfully ignored the important work they are doing.
By focusing on a single snapshot of the market, Oliver also paints an unfair picture of the whole, especially because he fails to acknowledge that the processes underpinning carbon markets emerged over several decades of piloting, research, and implementation by thousands of scientists, policymakers, and environmentalists from a number of disciplines, and continue to evolve.
In particular, the rules governing GHG crediting programs have evolved through a process of expert review and public consultation that draws on factors including scientific evidence, best practices, and technological advances. If GHG crediting programs stood still and never updated the rules, Oliver might have a point, but this is far from reality. As the American Carbon Registry (ACR) pointed out in a detailed rebuttal, it has revised and updated their rules and requirements.
At Verra, we continually update the rules and requirements of the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) Program, the leading GHG crediting program in the voluntary carbon market, and are currently on the fourth version of the VCS Standard. The last time we updated it (in 2019), we made an important change, which was to stop the registration of grid-connected renewable energy projects in most countries, such as those called out by Oliver when he mentions a paper that questioned the additionality of some Indian renewable energy projects that were developed under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).
Unfortunately, Oliver ignores the evolving economics of renewable energy, which is that while today renewables are cost-competitive with fossil-fired facilities, that was not always the case. At the time those projects were registered, the economics for most renewables projects did not stack up and required the additional financial support provided by carbon finance. Rather than a case of ill-begotten support, the success of renewables can be attributed in part to the early support provided by carbon markets.
Another big picture item that Oliver misses is that projects financed with carbon credits really do reduce emissions. For example, he says, “Study after study has indicated that most offsets available on the market don’t reliably reduce emissions”, but ignores other important studies, such as the most extensive peer-reviewed analysis to date where researchers from Cambridge University looked at 40 voluntary carbon projects in developing countries and concluded that deforestation was 47 percent lower than in areas with the same topography and facing similar threats, while degradation rates were 58 percent lower.
That’s not perfection, but it beats the alternatives by a wide margin and refutes Oliver’s claim that offsets “may actually be making things even worse,” especially when considering that all emission reductions certified by credible GHG crediting programs need to be audited by independent third-party auditors and all the documentation, including auditors’ reports, behind every single project is available for review by anybody on a publicly-accessible registry.
By obsessing on one project in Pennsylvania, Oliver perhaps belies a northern bias because he ignores the fact that the vast majority of projects generating carbon credits are in the developing world, where regulations are scarce and resources are limited. He therefore completely misses the idea that projects funded through voluntary action (i.e., carbon finance) can play a crucial role in closing the regulatory gap in respect of emissions while at the same time benefiting local communities.
Disney, by the way, was also one of the early investors in the Alto Mayo Conservation Initiative developed by Conservation International, which protects 182,000 hectares of land high in biodiversity in the Peruvian Amazon. The Alto Mayo project is a good example of countless other projects that leverage carbon finance to provide a lifeline to communities living in and around those forests, and who for decades have received scant support.
Through the sale of carbon credits, these communities can now provide long-term employment to forest rangers, ensure food security through increased intensification of agricultural production, build schools and health clinics, improve drinking water, and reduce household pollution from wood-burning stoves, among other benefits. In short, carbon finance elegantly recognizes that money does not grow on trees, and corrects a critical market failure by enabling land stewards to earn their living as providers of ecosystem services, not as recipients of charity.
In 2021, voluntary carbon markets funneled roughly $1 billion to projects in developing countries, according to Ecosystem Marketplace, and that’s just in one year. The organization publishes its findings annually, and it’s surprising that a well-funded and prominent show like John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” missed this completely.
Failure to Understand Basic Rules Governing GHG Crediting Programs
Oliver’s team also fundamentally misunderstands many of the rules that govern the creation of carbon credits, especially those that are created through trusted GHG crediting programs such as the VCS Program and ACR. We can begin with additionality, which isn’t as simple as he makes it out to be.
In assessing additionality, it is important to consider the conditions under which that financing was first arranged, not the conditions ten years later. This is the context of the Indian wind farms he alluded to. Without the certainty early investors gained through the potential to sell carbon credits, it is likely that the landscape today would have a lot fewer renewable energy projects. Verra no longer recognizes new grid-connected renewable energy projects in most developing countries, but we do think carbon finance was critical to get those early projects off the ground and the technology into the mainstream.
Second, Oliver fails to understand the rigorous processes that credible GHG crediting programs require for the approval of accounting methodologies, which include subjecting the methodology to scientific scrutiny and public consultation. In particular, Oliver ridicules a proposal by a company called NCX that relies on “tonne-year accounting”, saying, “With NCX, you don’t even have to promise never to cut your trees down as they give you the option to still get paid simply to defer cutting them down for as little as one year. But a 12-month delay doesn’t really benefit the planet much as one expert that we talked to frankly, it’s akin to selling a carbon credit for holding your breath for 15 seconds.”
The science on tonne-year accounting is more complicated than we can go into here, but Oliver dismisses the whole idea based on a quip from an unnamed expert. Even though our public consultation on the subject revealed that it has plenty of support, there’s just too much disagreement over specific accounting procedures for it to proceed with Verra. Therefore, Verra chose not to adopt tonne-year accounting at this time. One would expect Oliver and his team to have followed the trail to learn that today there are no carbon credits, at least under one of the recognized programs he calls out, using the approach that he is critiquing.
Oliver then segues to the subject of leakage, which is what happens if a project halts deforestation in one place but “the logging operation simply cuts down the trees on the land next door instead.” Yes, leakage is a challenge, but Oliver ignores the fact that leakage can be addressed. For example, the VCS Program requires projects to account for leakage and subtract that from the credits issued. His sources also failed to explore what is known as positive leakage, when communities outside of project areas start to adopt the practices being implemented within the projects.
“Plus,” Oliver adds, “Given that forest fires are now on the rise thanks to climate change, offset programs can and have literally gone up in flames.” This is an outrageous claim that is not supported by any evidence whatsoever, and amounts to a lazy reliance on the existence of wildfires, which are in the public’s mind, to fabricate outrage.
The existence of wildfires is actually an argument for carbon finance because climate change means forests must be actively managed to reduce fires, and that’s part of what projects do. On top of that, all land-based VCS projects must put as much as 30 percent of the reductions they achieve into a global buffer account, as clearly laid out in Section 2.4 of the standard itself. This buffer account, which is diversified across project type, size, and geography, acts as an insurance pool against fires or other losses. If a loss occurs, it is compensated with credits equal to the reversal, including from the global buffer pool. And again, Oliver and his team overlooked the fact that Verra recently updated its requirements for assessing natural risks, including wildfires, and increased the percentage of credits that projects must set aside into the buffer to cover potential losses. By choosing to ignore these safeguards, Oliver is again putting punchlines over truth.
Fabricating Outrage and Laughter at the Same Time
The episode’s numerous failures flow from the quest for simple answers to a classic wicked problem, where answers are based on probabilities instead of certainties. Climate solutions are, by necessity, implemented with incomplete information, and they often work in tandem with other interventions – similar to how medical treatments work. What’s more, their efficacy is measured against viable alternatives and not against pet theories, miracle cures, or imagined states of perfection.
Toward the end of his show, Oliver creates a make-believe carbon registry called “Oliver’s Offsets” – a funny stunt, but one that’s dangerously misleading.
“Basically, getting a sign-off from a carbon registry is like winning a Kids’ Choice Award,” he says – ignoring all the history and rigor we’ve described above, as well as the fact that many companies, including one he alluded to just a few minutes earlier, put tremendous time and energy into “getting a sign-off” but was unable to do so.
Nobody claims the current voluntary carbon market is perfect, but it provides a framework for channeling much needed finance to solutions that reduce emissions and support communities. Today’s voluntary carbon market supports early action and promotes evolutionary improvement within a mosaic of solutions that Oliver’s simplistic narrative ignores.
At the end of the show, Oliver says that “Fundamentally, we cannot offset our way out of climate change.” This we agree with, wholeheartedly, especially because nobody believes carbon offsets are the only solution. In the right context, carbon offsets provide the flexibility companies need to undertake ambitious targets while at the same time financing projects that reduce emissions credibly. As a result, the voluntary carbon market is playing a critical role in helping to achieve the long-term climate stability we need.
Unfortunately, most of Oliver’s analysis was deeply flawed and reflected an appalling lack of interest in understanding how this evolving market supports action on climate change. As the managers of the world’s largest GHG crediting program, it is surprising that nobody from his team reached out to us during the preparation of the episode.
John Oliver has the resources to do this right, especially considering his desire to report on important topics accurately. We’d love to see him revisit the subject, but with better source material and input from the broader community of experts.
Note: This post has been edited to describe Verra’s current approach to tonne-year accounting.
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