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Analysis says most carbon ‘offsets’ by big companies do nothing

Many prominent brands have started buying carbon credits in order to offset their corporate emissions. Scientific analysis shows these are largely worthless.

As big companies attempt to appear more eco-conscious in the eyes of their customers, many have started to boast partnerships with rainforest conservation organisations around the world.

For example, major brands like Gucci, Shell, and Disney buy carbon offsets/credits that ‘cancel out’ the number of emissions spewed into the atmosphere in order to provide their products and services.

While saying that ‘buying X product supports the protection of X amount of trees in the Amazon’ is a rather cute concept, whether that actually happens or not has remained virtually impossible for consumers to verify.

But now, a thorough investigation by a team of journalists is suggesting that the vast majority of these offsetting schemes are not backed up by the necessary scientific methods to make such claims.

Before we delve into the details of the findings, it’s important to understand how companies are using carbon credits from rainforest protection schemes to boost their green credibility.

The report indicates that for every 100 hectares of rainforest left untouched, 40,000 tons of CO2 is prevented from entering the atmosphere. Sounds good so far, right?

If a company chooses to support organisations that protect, let’s say, 100 hectares of a forest, it may buy ‘carbon credits’ for making this commitment. Following this, the company may deduct that 40,000 tons of CO2 from its annual greenhouse gas emissions figure.

These partnerships must be assessed and approved by strict frameworks put in place by organisations such as Verra, a leading group for environmental standards for climate action and sustainable development, based in Washington DC.

Once approved by a company like Verra, brands can claim they are meeting sustainability and carbon reduction targets on paper. But problems arise when there isn’t enough information to verify whether the work of these deforestation projects are actually taking place.

Hoping to get to the bottom of this, an international team of journalists got to work.

They evaluated three scientific research papers which contained satellite images of carbon offsetting projects to assess their true impact on reducing deforestation.

Theirs is not the first study to investigate carbon offsets by major companies, but it is one of the first to use scientific methods to measure the impact of deforestation tactics.

Already, two out of three studies completed by the team of journalists have been peer-reviewed. The third is currently in progress.

What the researchers found is shocking. According to Verra’s strict sustainability guidelines, only 8 out of 29 deforestation projects investigated fit the critera of approval by the DC-based carbon credit company.

Looking deeper, their analysis revealed that a massive 94 percent of credits resulting from collaborations between organisations and macompanies should never have been approved by Verra.

Making matters worse, most of the carbon-offset figures were completely misrepresented.

At least 21 of the deforestation projects did not generate any benefit for the climate, while 7 of them grossly overestimated how many credits they can offer. These overestimates were between 52 and 98 higher that what Verra’s carbon credit system calculations would allow.

Amongst companies buying carbon credits from Vera-approved projects are Shell, BHP, Leon, and Gucci.

On the outside, it looks like deforestation projects and carbon credit schemes can often be total scams. And who takes the hit? Well, sadly, the planet does. As do its inhabitants.

It would be far more beneficial for companies to begin taking action in-house to reach their sustainability targets.

For example, easyJet is one company that has stopped buying carbon credits. Instead, it has chosen to support the development of net-zero carbon flight technology and engineering. Funding this research to change the future of aircraft fuel needs is far more impactful.

Distributors of goods can do their part by responsibly sourcing their packaging or finding innovative ways to cut down on their use of materials. Amazon, we’re looking at you!

For businesses with a cash overflow, a great idea would be to start supporting groups that are conducting research and development to improve the durability of sustainable bio-materials used for packaging.

In the end, the sale of carbon credits is still a very new system – one that can be abused or riddled with shady practices like any other business. For now, customers should be wary of believing these claims or risk falling for yet another greenwashing tactic.