In its segment “Do Carbon Offsets Actually Work?” on “All Things Considered” (30 April 2021) National Public Radio (NPR) questioned the environmental integrity of carbon credits from forest preservation projects certified by Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard (VCS). However, due to a number of serious errors, the NPR story cannot be relied upon by listeners eager to know the truth. Verra’s front-end input that would have avoided the errors in the story was ignored. The ensuing break-down in the NPR reporting process resulted in five gross mischaracterizations that we cannot allow to go unchallenged on the public record:
- Misunderstanding the role of carbon credits. The story starts by defining “carbon neutral” as a commitment by emitters to pollute less OR offset pollution. This is not how carbon credits are intended to work. Rather, carbon credits are meant to supplement efforts by companies that reduce their emissions in the first place: they are not to be used as the first – or only – solution.
- Unfairly dismissing key technology. The story dismisses an important effort to enhance transparency: the cutting-edge work by Pachama to use remote sensing, satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to better measure the performance of projects in halting deforestation. Last week, Pachama was able to raise US$15 million to continue this important work. Efforts to improve transparency — which are finally starting to attract the financial support that is desperately needed — should be embraced, not derided. There is no basis for trashing the work of Pachama and NPR was dead wrong to do so.
- Over-relying on a single limited study. The story refers exclusively to a controversial study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that criticized carbon crediting from forest conservation projects. Aside from the methodological problem in relying on just one source, this particular source is fundamentally flawed on several grounds:
- Mistaken comparisons. The PNAS study contrasts deforestation rates between project sites and author-chosen control sites. However, by the authors’ own admission, their control sites “do not perfectly match the REDD+ project areas, particularly in terms of size, accessibility, and biophysical characteristics.” Further, the sites do not account for the main drivers of deforestation: road and settlement density, elevation, the main forest classes in the project area, and policies and regulations. In extreme cases, the authors used the entire Amazon biome as the control site. This is problematic: if control sites are not representative of the project sites, comparisons become meaningless.
- Desk review. The PNAS study is a desk review. The authors did not visit the project sites or surrounding areas to investigate what was happening on the ground. This approach, which relies on global satellite datasets, is inferior to what should have been done: use national forest inventories and high-resolution land-use change maps, and “ground-truth” them through in-person audits.
- Snapshots in time are illusory. The PNAS study is severely limited by its timeframe. It stops in 2017, ignoring the fact that — in the past four years — deforestation in surrounding regions has risen dramatically, while the projects have effectively stopped deforestation within their boundaries. What’s more, the study represents just a snapshot in the lifetime of projects, which need to last decades (per VCS requirements) to truly transform local economic drivers away from deforestation.
- Failing to understand that new requirements apply to all projects. The NPR story recognizes that Verra recently published new requirements for forest projects, but fails to state that these requirements apply to all projects, including existing ones. Key to these requirements are that baselines, the main issue raised by the PNAS study, will be set differently and that projects need to re-calculate their baselines every four to six years — down from every ten years — thereby ensuring that projects apply the latest scientific and technological understanding.
- Glossing over Verra’s rigorous certification process. Verra applies a tough and thorough certification process to its projects, including comprehensive program requirements and accounting methodologies. The program requirements have been developed over decades through extensive input and stakeholder consultation, and reflect best practice, lessons learned, and the latest scientific findings. The accounting methodologies and the project designs are validated by independent auditors, and the emission reductions and removals are verified, also by independent auditors, through on-the-ground site visits. The credits issued by these projects represent real and permanent emission reductions and follow a much more rigorous set of requirements than those set out by the PNAS study referenced above.
NPR interviewed Verra at length on all five of the points outlined above, but unfortunately failed to properly explain the context in which carbon credits exist, focused almost exclusively on a study that has limited relevance, and did not explore how carbon crediting programs work and how they keep up to date in light of scientific and technological developments. At a time when we need objective and complete reporting so that we can protect the world’s forests and address the climate emergency, it is unfortunate that NPR got it so wrong.