Jon Amos Power Plant

An aerial view of the Jon Amos Power Plant shows smoke stacks and cooling in Poca, West Virginia on May 8, 2023.

(Photo by: Visions of America/Joseph Sohm/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

'Damning' Probe Finds 80% of Top Carbon Offset Schemes Are 'Likely Junk or Worthless'

Carbon offset projects are "proving a dangerous diversion of political capital and time from the meaningful and just solutions needed to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis," said one researcher.

A joint investigation published Tuesday by the watchdog group Corporate Accountability and The Guardian finds that nearly 80% of the leading carbon offset schemes backed by corporations and governments in a purported attempt to reduce planet-warming pollution should be deemed "likely junk or worthless."

Carbon offset projects are billed as a way for corporations, governmental bodies, and individuals to compensate for their emissions footprints by investing in efforts to curb pollution elsewhere. Environmentalists have long warned that carbon offset schemes—part of the so-called voluntary carbon market (VCM)—are a way for fossil fuel companies such as Chevron to justify continued oil and gas extraction.

Citing the emissions trading database AlliedOffsets, The Guardian noted Tuesday that "the 50 most popular global projects include forestry schemes, hydroelectric dams, solar and wind farms, waste disposal, and greener household appliances schemes across 20 (mostly) developing countries."

The new joint investigation finds that 39 of the top 50 carbon offset projects contain at least one "fundamental failing that undermines its promised emission cuts," making them "likely junk."

The analysis characterizes a project as "likely junk" if there's "compelling evidence, claims, or high risk that it cannot guarantee additional, permanent greenhouse gas cuts, among other criteria."

"In some cases, there was evidence suggesting the project could leak greenhouse gas emissions or shift emissions elsewhere," The Guardian explained. "In other cases, the climate benefits appeared to be exaggerated or the project would have happened independently—with or without the voluntary carbon market."

Rachel Rose Jackson, director of climate research and international policy at Corporate Accountability, said in a statement that "the findings are extremely damning of a scheme that the world's largest emitters repeatedly tout as a lynchpin in solving the climate crisis."

"The VCM is proving a dangerous diversion of political capital and time from the meaningful and just solutions needed to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis," said Jackson.

"We cannot afford to waste any more time on false solutions."

The investigation is just the latest research to cast serious doubt on the effectiveness of carbon offset initiatives as companies and governments around the world, including the United States, increasingly invest resources in unproven voluntary carbon trading schemes as they face mounting backlash for doing little to phase out fossil fuels.

Last week, Carbon Market Watch released an analysis from experts at the University of California, Berkeley showing that popular carbon offset projects focused on forest preservation exaggerate their emissions reductions and are ineffective at combating deforestation, a major threat to the climate.

In their investigation, Corporate Accountability and The Guardian pointed to a major forest conservation project in Zimbabwe that "was reported to have had so many exaggerated and inflated claims—and probably shifted emissions elsewhere—that it was described as 'having more financial holes than Swiss cheese.'"

"In the U.S., the most problematic project is the world's largest carbon capture and storage plant in Wyoming, which has benefited from generous taxpayer subsidies, but where the vast majority of the captured CO2 has been released into the atmosphere or sold to other fossil fuel companies to help extract hard-to-reach oil," The Guardian reported, citing the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Anuradha Mittal, director of the Oakland Institute, told the newspaper that "the ramifications of this analysis are huge, as it points to systemic failings of the voluntary market, providing additional evidence that junk carbon credits pervade the market."

"We cannot afford to waste any more time on false solutions," Mittal added. "The issues are far-reaching and pervasive, extending well beyond specific verifiers. The VCM is actively exacerbating the climate emergency."

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