On 14 November, the Daily Mirror published an article titled “Licence to pollute: the sham of carbon offsetting” which suggests that one of the approaches to mitigate the impacts of climate change, carbon offsetting, “has been riddled with scams and failures.” Verra wishes to respond to some of the points raised in this article.

Specifically, the article questions the validity of carbon offsets originating from the April Salumei project in Papua New Guinea. The Australian airline Quantas is offering passengers to purchase carbon offsets from this project to mitigate emissions caused by their air travel.

According to the article, the fact that the April Salumei project was last verified in 2013 means that the Verified Carbon Units (VCUs)* currently on the market have not been accurately quantified. A closer look at the project record on our public database reveals that these VCUs were originated between 2009 and 2012. An independent auditor issued a verification report in December of 2012, confirming that these emission reductions or removals were quantified in accordance with the methodology and the project’s monitoring plan and conform to all Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) requirements. These VCUs therefore represent real and credible emission reductions, allowing the project to sell them to interested parties at any time, even after they were initially created. To summarize, even though the project has issued carbon credits as recently as 2018, these credits came from the project’s existing supply of emission reductions that were generated between 2009 and 2012 and verified in December of 2012.

The article also accuses Verra of not knowing “what’s happened to public money paid to support [the project]”.

Principally, if the money in question is derived from offset purchases — e.g., from Quantas passengers purchasing carbon credits to mitigate the climate impact of their air travel — it is not “public money” which is defined as “having been obtained from a governmental entity”.

Moreover, it is Verra’s responsibility to manage the Verified Carbon Standard which issues the rules and requirements that a project must adhere to in order to produce credible and permanent emission reductions. We also ensure that the third-party auditors that validate and verify projects have received appropriate accreditation. It would not be appropriate for a standard-setting organization to be involved in, or have detailed knowledge of, financial transactions such as credit sales or the use of revenues, as it would constitute a conflict of interest. In a similar example, the USDA issues the Organic Standards which lay out the specific requirements that must be met so a product can be labeled as “USDA organic”. As the standard setter, the USDA does not track how farmers use the price premium earned after receiving organic certification.

The article is also critical of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), the emission mitigation approach for the global airline industry. The article’s two main criticisms seem to be that a) carbon offsetting gives airlines a “license to pollute”, i.e., a permit to keep emitting carbon dioxide, and b) that the carbon offsets traded under CORSIA are issued and traded before it has been ascertained that the emission reductions they represent have indeed happened.

Under the Verified Carbon Standard, VCUs are only issued after an auditor verifies they have in fact already taken place, so that these VCUs represent real emission reductions.

Second, the article claims that the forest fires currently plaguing a number of forests around the world at the moment are proof that schemes to offset emissions by storing carbon in trees can “easily and quickly — and literally — go up in smoke”.

While it is true that some projects are at a heightened risk of being impacted by unforeseen events, including forest fires, which could result in the sequestered carbon being re-emitted into the atmosphere, the VCS has put tools in place to guarantee that even in the case of such an event, the VCUs originated by a project represent real and permanent emission reductions. To do so, the VCS requires land-based projects to set aside a risk-adjusted percentage of the emission reductions and removals achieved, which are then placed into a global buffer pool. These “buffer credits” are managed by the VCS (not by the project owner) and can be cancelled in cases where reversals occur. This is to say that the buffer pool works much like insurance does. The project owner pays a “premium” in the form of emission reductions that are deposited into a buffer account, which, in turn, is managed by an independent standards body (the “insurer”). If and as reversals occur in any single project in the system, the carbon losses resulting from them are covered through the cancellation of an equivalent number of buffer credits from the buffer pool.

Finally, the article states that carbon offsetting schemes like REDD enable people in the northern hemisphere “to continue their massively polluting lifestyles while having a serious impact on some of the poorest people on the planet because all of a sudden they are not allowed to clear a small area of forest to grow food for their family.”

This statement sets up a false dichotomy. All countries and societies need to be actively addressing climate change. There are myriad ways to reduce emissions and all should be encouraged. Offsetting is only one piece of the puzzle and plays a very specific role; it is a market mechanism that reduces the cost of abatement while also driving climate finance to some of the most vulnerable people and ecosystems. REDD projects do not negatively impact the ability of local communities to earn their livelihoods. Instead, these projects transform local economic forces so that communities are able to make a living from a standing forest, i.e., from activities other than deforestation. For some examples of how this works, click here.

*One VCU represents one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent that was removed from the atmosphere or not emitted.