More research into the validity of the current carbon offsets market is showing massive shortcomings and dysfunctionalities of this type of climate change mitigation approach. Researchers led by Barbara Haya from the University of Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy have conducted a study covering almost 300 carbon offset projects.
According to the study’s findings, the industry’s top registries have consistently allowed developers to claim far more climate-saving benefits than they could justify with actual emissions offsettings achieved. The registries’ purpose is to track offset projects and issue offset credits for each unit or a ton of emission reduction or removal that is verified and certified.
“Across the board, they fall far short from good practice in carbon accounting… It’s pervasive,” explains Mrs Haya.
The researchers assessed the methods of forestry carbon offset projects that are responsible for 11% of all carbon offsets ever issued. The projects that have been looked into aim to improve forest management and include offsets practices like waiting to harvest trees when they’re older, limiting the number of trees that can be cut per hectare, or minimizing the environmental impact of logging infrastructure such as roads.
The results show that the registries’ methods didn’t ensure basic criteria were met that would prove forestry carbon offset projects make a real difference to CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Some of the criteria include additionality or making sure the carbon credits that funded tree-protecting activities wouldn’t have otherwise happened without the payments from the credits.
The study also found cracks in the baseline that the credits were calculated against. Most of the credits of the 300 projects assessed had been generated against a baseline of aggressive harvesting practices that didn’t align with past practices in the area. That means developers could have been paid for harvesting that wouldn’t have happened anyway.
Barbara Haya’s team claims that the findings of the study show the companies can’t rely on offsets generated using these methods to make claims of carbon neutrality or climate advances, as they are portraying a misleading sense of progress towards addressing the climate crisis.
The study also suggests improvements to the system that include using dynamic rather than static baselines. As a response to recent criticism and scrutiny, Verra announced it introduced a new methodology adopting this approach.
Even though carbon offsets market could be a well-working mechanism to improve forest carbon sequestration and address the issue of deforestation, the reality shows there are many areas that need improvement before the market becomes functional.
An investigation by Bloomberg published in 2022 also found that almost 40% of the offsets purchased in 2021 came from renewable energy projects that didn’t actually avoid emissions. The reality many researchers have found, shows that project developers were often able to generate credits even when no changes in emissions from their actions were made. That issue is urgent and needs to be addressed respectively.