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Voluntary carbon credits offset nothing more than hot air

24 August 2023
Projects that reduce deforestation often sell carbon credits, for example to consumers buying flight tickets. However, over 90 percent of these credits do not actually offset carbon emissions. That is the conclusion of environmental scientist Thales A.P. West, who is the main author of a paper that was published in Science.

There is a growing interest in carbon credits around the world, which together reached a market value of two billion dollars in 2022. Furthermore, transferring carbon credits (tradable financial units that compensate CO2 emissions) is encouraged in the Paris Agreement of 2015.    

Thales Pupo West and his fellow researchers evaluated the effect of voluntary REDD+ projects. REDD+, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in developing countries, is a voluntary climate change mitigation instrument which enables compensating CO2 emissions by forest conservation. 

The researchers collected data on voluntary REDD+ projects and project regions, including historical deforestation, to create counterfactuals for the project areas: scenarios about what would happen without the REDD+ programme. Then, they compared their calculations about what would happen without the conservation projects with the calculations of the project developers.  

For most of these projects, the scientists found no evidence that they reduce deforestation. Their estimation is that 90 percent of the carbon credits from the REDD+ projects do not actually offset carbon emissions. The projects that do reduce deforestation overestimate their impact, causing projects to issue more carbon credits than they should.  

 Hot air 
According to the researchers, this means that the carbon offsets bought by individuals and organizations to reduce their own emissions are mostly “hot air”, not offsetting anything in reality. “We are fooling ourselves when we purchase these offsets,” says West. ”Individuals and organizations are spending billions of dollars on a climate change mitigation strategy that does not work, instead of investing this money into something that can actually make a difference, such as clean energy.” 

 Science publication 
The study, ‘Action needed to make carbon offsets from forest conservation work for climate change mitigation’, was published in Science. It is a follow-up from previous work where a smaller group of REDD+ projects in the Brazilian Amazon was examined. West co-authored the paper with researchers from, amongst others, the University of Cambridge, the University of Bonn, and the European Forest Institute in Barcelona.