‘Useless’: scientists warn that carbon offsetting is a dangerous illusion

In early 2023, the Guardian newspaper published a controversial article that sent shockwaves through the billion-dollar market for rainforest carbon credits. The article claimed that over 90% of these credits, which promise to protect forests and offset emissions, are essentially worthless. While Verra, the largest certifier of such credits, strongly refuted these claims, confidence in this market has been significantly shaken. Now a groundbreaking study published in the journal Science has provided concrete evidence that many projects selling such credits have failed to actually reduce deforestation.

The concept of REDD+ credits and their purpose

REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) projects aim to combat deforestation through strategies such as supporting farmers to adopt sustainable practices. These projects quantify the carbon saved by reducing deforestation and sell these emissions reductions as credits. These credits are widely used to offset emissions by companies claiming to be carbon neutral or by individuals concerned about their carbon footprint.

The disappointing reality of REDD+ credits

While previous analysis has shown that some REDD+ projects effectively slow deforestation, the new study reveals a disturbing truth: many projects have significantly overestimated their impact on reducing deforestation and saving carbon. This means that the promise of fearless flight to New York offset by rainforest conservation in the Congo Basin may not be as carbon-neutral as it seems.

Sven Wunder, a forest economist and co-author of the study, emphasizes the urgency of combating tropical deforestation: “To address climate change, we need to stop deforestation of tropical forests. Forests matter for other reasons: forest loss will lead to species extinction and affect regional rainfall patterns.” Even though REDD+ does not deliver additional conservation outcomes, we cannot afford to give up.”

The problem of leakage and perpetuity

One of the major challenges facing carbon credits is “leakage” or displacement of deforestation. When deforestation is reduced in one area, it often leads to increased deforestation in another area as people simply relocate or the demand for resources shifts elsewhere. In addition, ongoing forest protection is critical to the long-term effectiveness of such projects. Permanent removal of carbon from the atmosphere can only be achieved if the reduction in deforestation continues indefinitely.

The future of carbon offsets in tropical forests

The discovery that many REDD+ carbon credits do not effectively conserve forests raises concerns for the future of tropical forests. This calls into question the reliability of the offset credit market and emphasizes the need for more careful monitoring and evaluation of these projects. As scientists, economists and environmentalists continue to study and evaluate the impact of carbon credits on tropical forests, it is clear that urgent action is needed to combat deforestation and its impacts.

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