The appeal is obvious: for a few pounds, we can – in theory – cancel out the damage we do to the planet by protecting a threatened rainforest. We can fly and eat “carbon neutral” and even offset CO2 emissions from our breath, making our entire existence “carbon neutral” under the logic of offsetting. If only life were so simple.
These claims – which bombard us in the supermarkets, online and on television – are often based on carbon credits approved by Verra, the world’s leading certifier for the $2bn (£1.6bn) voluntary offsets market. Disney, Gucci and Shell are just some of the names that use them, and they are presented as a “nature-based solution” to the guilt that many of us feel about our emissions and contribution to biodiversity loss.
Now, after the Guardian’s joint investigation into the rainforest credits, which indicated that many of them are worthless and often do not prevent any deforestation at all, the non-profit is making major changes to its rainforest offsets programme. It has committed to phasing out the current methods for producing credits by July 2025 at the latest. This had been promised for a long time, but we now have an end date.
We should be cautious about the reforms and what they mean for ethical shoppers who want to do the right thing. Insiders in the carbon offsetting industry – which is unregulated – paint a picture of bizarre world that brings together the oil and gas industry, conservationists, governments, financiers, Silicon Valley and UN climate conferences.
Insiders say conflicts of interest are rife and experts say scandals show the industry is at the beginning of a “credibility revolution”, a reference to an economic movement that applied empirical methods to the social sciences and was recognised with a Nobel prize in 2021.
“A credibility revolution that began in the late 80s has swept through social sciences. That has unearthed new findings about what the impacts of welfare are on people’s willingness to work, environmental regulations, tax quality and a whole range of things. Now that credibility revolution is arriving at the door of carbon offsetting and the news isn’t very encouraging,” said Michael Greenstone, a professor at the University of Chicago and Barack Obama’s former chief economist, who researches the impact of environmental policies.