Re­vealed, the car­bon off­set­ting ‘Wild West’

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page - By Hay­ley Dixon, Emma Gat­ten and So­phie Barnes

CON­SUMERS try­ing to off­set their emis­sions risk be­ing de­ceived in a “Wild West” un­reg­u­lated car­bon mar­ket, a Daily Tele­graph in­ves­ti­ga­tion has found.

As the trad­ing of car­bon cred­its be­comes in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar, con­cern has been raised about off­set­ting projects around the world.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have warned that the schemes could be do­ing more harm than good, as peo­ple wrongly think they are can­celling out their en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact and there­fore do not curb pol­lut­ing be­hav­iour.

The Tele­graph be­came one of the first me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions in the world to gain ac­cess to an il­le­gal sap­phire mine in Mada­gas­car, sit­u­ated in a con­ser­va­tion zone that is used to gen­er­ate car­bon cred­its and has seen in­creas­ing rates of de­for­esta­tion.

Sep­a­rate satel­lite anal­y­sis for this news­pa­per has also re­vealed that trees are be­ing cut down at a project in Brazil which is used by both Bri­tish Gas and the In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion (Iata).

To off­set emis­sions pro­duced by en­ergy use, or ac­tiv­i­ties such as fly­ing and driv­ing, in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies can pur­chase cred­its gen­er­ated by a project that re­moves car­bon from the at­mos­phere, for ex­am­ple by plant­ing trees or pre­vent­ing de­for­esta­tion.

How­ever, cam­paign­ers say that the premise is fun­da­men­tally flawed and car­bon trad­ing can­not be jus­ti­fied in sit­u­a­tions, such as those ex­posed to­day in this news­pa­per, where there has ac­tu­ally been an in­crease in de­for­esta­tion in ar­eas used for car­bon off­set­ting.

These rev­e­la­tions are the lat­est in a long line of prob­lems with car­bon off­set­ting projects which have seen saplings die be­cause of droughts and forests ripped up by the Cam­bo­dian army or Brazil­ian gold min­ers.

The news comes as the Gov­ern­ment has sig­nalled its in­creas­ing com­mit­ment to re­duc­ing emis­sions and pol­lu­tion. Yes­ter­day, it was an­nounced that the sale of do­mes­tic coal and cer­tain types of wood will be banned, weeks af­ter plans were re­vealed to stop the sale of new petrol, diesel and hy­brid cars by 2035.

The off­set­ting in­dus­try is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a boom. The “Greta Thunberg ef­fect”, named af­ter the Swedish cli­mate-change ac­tivist, has seen con­sumers in­creas­ingly keen to limit the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of their ac­tions. Com­pa­nies such as easyjet, Bri­tish Air­ways and BP pledg­ing to go car­bon neu­tral and of­fer­ing off­set­ting op­tions has also fu­elled the in­dus­try.

Heathrow an­nounced yes­ter­day that it was car­bon neu­tral and would be off­set­ting car­bon emis­sions through tree plant­ing in In­done­sia and Mex­ico.

The global car­bon trad­ing mar­ket is es­ti­mated to be worth hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars, while the vol­un­tary mar­ket, on which in­di­vid­u­als can pur­chase car­bon cred­its, was worth $296 mil­lion (£229 mil­lion) in 2018, more than double the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to Ecosys­tem Mar­ket­place. The De­cem­ber re­port says the mar­ket

is “at the tipping point we’ve long been wait­ing for”, as com­pa­nies re­spond to con­sumer pres­sure to of­fer green op­tions. But the or­gan­i­sa­tion noted that grow­ing de­mand could lead to “sub­par” off­sets as “in­ex­pe­ri­enced buy­ers” get in­volved in the mar­ket.

Lou Mun­den, founder of TMP Sys­tems, a con­sul­tancy spe­cial­is­ing in cli­mate change that has an­a­lysed car­bon mar­kets since 2011, said: “We don’t have any good ev­i­dence one way or another to tell you whether this stuff works, we just don’t know.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups have called for more reg­u­la­tion of the mar­ket, which sets its own stan­dards and prices, which dif­fer de­pend­ing on which project the credit is gen­er­ated from.

Peter Rigg, who con­venes the Cli­mate Land Am­bi­tion and Rights Al­liance, which in­cludes Ox­fam and Ac­tion Aid, said that a sin­gle credit can have a dif­fer­ent price de­pend­ing on its “back story”, show­ing that car­bon is not a fixed trade­able com­mod­ity.

Dr Doug Parr, Green­peace UK’S chief sci­en­tist, said: “It’s bad enough that big car­bon emit­ters like air­lines are us­ing off­set­ting as a li­cense to pol­lute, but they of­ten en­cour­age their cus­tomers to join in the green­wash, too.

“Pas­sen­gers are given the im­pres­sion that by cough­ing up a few quid they can magic away the planet-heat­ing gases from their flights.

“But what cus­tomers aren’t told is that this mar­ket is an un­reg­u­lated Wild West, and there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence that off­set­ting schemes gen­er­ally work. The best and safest way to re­duce car­bon emis­sions re­mains not to pro­duce them in the first place.”

Stud­ies have shown that about three quar­ters of the projects do not pro­vide any en­vi­ron­men­tal gain be­cause they would have hap­pened any­way.

In­dus­try sources have told The Daily Tele­graph that there is recog­ni­tion that for­est projects are not re­ally work­ing, but se­nior con­ser­va­tion­ists are re­luc­tant to point out the flaws in the sys­tem for fear that peo­ple will stop buy­ing cred­its as the cur­rent sys­tem is “bet­ter than noth­ing”.

Gilles Dufrasne, a pol­icy of­fi­cer at Car­bon Mar­ket Watch, said that un­der the cur­rent sys­tem, con­sumers do not know what they are buy­ing.

“There is such a lack of trans­parency and com­mu­ni­ca­tion from many of the big com­pa­nies that pur­chase car­bon cred­its, you don’t re­ally know what is be­ing pur­chased or what the im­pact of your money is,” he told The Tele­graph.

“I would never tick a box say­ing ‘I would pay to off­set’, with­out know­ing what the project was,” he added.

Grant Shapps, the Trans­port Sec­re­tary, has spo­ken in favour of car­bon off­set­ting, and the Gov­ern­ment last year launched a con­sul­ta­tion on whether to make it com­pul­sory across trans­port sec­tors for con­sumers to be of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to off­set.

The re­sults of the con­sul­ta­tion are ex­pected this year, but are un­der­stood to have been de­layed as the Gov­ern­ment tries to keep up with the scale of vol­un­tary off­set­ting among air­lines.

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