We believe that investigative and critical reporting on the climate crisis is more important than ever, but an article about avoided deforestation projects published in Die Zeit  on 19 January 2023 contains numerous falsehoods and distortions.

The article mentions various opinions that Verra and many scientists do not agree with. It would be better if Die Zeit published a more balanced piece, but we understand its interest in sensationalism. At the same time, the article contains numerous falsehoods and misleading statements that cannot go unaddressed. Below, we address the most significant of these falsehoods and misleading statements, based on a reading of the English language text.

But first, here is a statement in response to the Die Zeit piece: Avoided deforestation projects funded by carbon credits are not some kind of corporate conspiracy, as Die Zeit claims. Rather, these projects have evolved through decades of experimentation conducted by scientists, conservation groups, green businesses, and various bodies of the United Nations.

Verra started on this work 15 years ago with the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), when carbon standards were proliferating. The VCS became a forum operated by Verra where organizations could develop climate methodologies in a structured way involving iterative rounds of expert review and public consultation. Verra is a highly transparent organization that constantly and openly engages with governments, scientific bodies, and civil society. The overwhelming majority of these organizations embrace and support our activities.

Readers of Die Zeit must understand that we have a specific, narrow role in the voluntary carbon market: we set the standards that projects must follow, we certify the real-world impacts of these projects by issuing carbon credits, and we hold these credits on our registry.

Verra believes that the studies referenced in the report are not appropriate for avoided deforestation projects funded by carbon credits. Verra also believes that it is irresponsible for Die Zeit to use selective data and views to produce one-sided grandiose and sensational headlines.

We now examine the most significant of the errors in the reporting by Die Zeit:

“[Verra is] an NGO [non-governmental organization] that exerts control over a multibillion-dollar market.”

FALSE: Verra is a small, non-profit standard-setting organization that certifies the environmental and social impacts of projects to reduce or remove emissions. Verra does not exert control over the market, which is shaped by a variety of factors affecting supply and demand.

“Four parties are involved in the deal… those acquiring the carbon credits… the retail traders… the project developers and… the fourth partner in the system, situated above all the others, are the certifiers who decide how many carbon credits to assign to each project.”

FALSE: This description ignores the key role of third-party auditors, known as validation and verification bodies (VVBs). These auditors, which are independent entities, are responsible for assessing whether a project meets the standards that Verra has set out and also for assessing whether the project has reduced or removed emissions. Verra routinely checks the work of these auditors and periodically audits them. To become an auditor, an entity must be accredited under a Verra-approved greenhouse gas program or an international standard (ISO 14065) by an accreditation body that is a member of the International Accreditation Forum.

“The full extent of the problem, though, is now shown for the first time by two studies, whose data Die Zeit was able to exclusively analyze. A global research team examined 29 of the 87 forest conservation projects that are currently certified by Verra. Analysis of the data indicates that over 90 percent of all carbon credits issued by those projects are worthless.”

FALSE: There are multiple concerns with the above. First, the “analysis of the data” was not conducted by scientists, but instead by journalists who used a non-transparent process to extrapolate results from the Thales West et al. data and a highly selective subset from the Guizar Coutiño data. Second, the methodology used by Thales West et al. has not been proven to be effective for avoided deforestation projects, given that it looked only at simple physical features and did not consider such fundamental factors such as:

  • Forest type;
  • Underlying, locale-specific, socio-economic processes, such as (a) predominant economic activities; (b) agricultural practices; (c) access to markets; and (d) access to technology;
  • Geography: in certain cases, synthetic control areas were in different states or even the opposite end of the country.

“If the forests are clearcut or are destroyed by storms or fire, the CO₂ they sequestered finds its way back into the atmosphere and the previous benefit to the climate is eliminated.”

FALSE: To address these risks, all Verra forest carbon projects must put a risk-adjusted share of their credits into a global buffer pool. This buffer pool acts as a fund against reversals. If a reversal occurs, a number of credits equal to the amount of the reversal is cancelled from the global buffer pool. This ensures that the previous benefit to the climate is preserved, rather than eliminated.

“Some representatives from the business world… agreed in 2006 to establish their own standard, one that was more flexible and more pragmatic.”

FALSE: The Voluntary Carbon Standard (later Verra) was conceived in 2005, not 2006, and was founded in 2007. Its establishment did not exclusively involve “representatives from the business world”.

“And still today, the people who work in Unit 1050 have close ties to industry. Verra’s advisory board and expert groups alone include three Shell executives, according to its website, along with employees from the pharmaceutical giant Bayer, food producer Danone and online retailer Amazon.”

FALSE: Verra has 15 advisory committees and groups, panels, and working groups, comprised of over 200 people, including academics, business representatives, staff of environmental organizations, and employees of multilateral organizations. The article’s statement that Verra has “close ties to industry” or insinuation that business interests are disproportionately influential is highly misleading.

“Indeed, the system for using forests to offset CO₂ emissions isn’t actually designed to allow for such interventions. Project developers calculate the amount of CO₂ emissions their project will prevent in accordance with the Verra rules, but they don’t then have to present their calculations to Verra to be checked. Rather, the numbers are submitted to a verification company.”

FALSE: The system is designed for “interventions”. Projects are assessed by an auditor (validation and verification body, or VVB) multiple times — first to ensure that the proposal makes sense (validation), and then at periodic intervals to ensure that it is being properly implemented (verification). Verra routinely checks the work of these auditors and periodically audits them.

“The most popular (methodology) … bears the name VM0007. Among its provisions, it holds that a forest owner must only harbor an intention to clearcut a forest to generate credits, even if the owner doesn’t ultimately do so. But how can you be certain that someone isn’t just bluffing?”

FALSE: The current version of VM0007 requires use of a widely used United Nations additionality test (the CDM Combined tool to identify the baseline scenario and demonstrate additionality in A/R CDM project activities). This is not just a declaration that the project developer intended to deforest. Any Avoiding Planned Deforestation project, including the ones that use VM0007, must demonstrate the immediate site-specific threat of deforestation.

“West developed an algorithm rooted in 13 criteria to automatically search for the most similar areas in the country where the project is located to establish a synthetic control area. In doing so, he determined that the horror scenarios that had been drawn up by the project developers had materialized almost nowhere, meaning the projects saved significantly less CO₂ than claimed.”

MISLEADING: West et al. applied simple physical criteria such as the slope of the land that are very limited in comparing a project area to a synthetic control area. It ignored many key determinants of deforestation and land-use change, including:

  • Forest type;
  • Underlying, locale-specific, socio-economic processes, such as (a) predominant economic activities; (b) agricultural practices; (c) access to markets; and (d) access to technology;
  • Geography: in certain cases, synthetic control areas were in different states or even the opposite end of the country.

Ignoring these determinants means that the West et al. findings are methodologically highly unreliable.

“West isn’t the only researcher who has come to this conclusion” (that 94% of REDD credits are worthless)”.

FALSE. West et al. did not come to this conclusion. Other studies have also not come to this conclusion. Rather, this conclusion came from an analysis that was conducted by reporters, not scientists, and has not been transparently disclosed.