The Guardian’s joint investigation into carbon offsetting has revealed the flaws in the current system, and the strong reaction to the findings shows how much is at stake. Verra, the Washington-based non-profit at the centre of the story, is the world’s leading carbon standard, and the evidence used to calculate offsets was found to be unreliable. This has implications for anyone hoping that emissions trading can help the world to reach net zero. The findings have also reignited criticism of public entities using international carbon credit schemes to offset local emissions in Australia.
The question now is what happens next. Academics and environmental campaigners are divided on the role of carbon markets in combating global heating. Some argue that any attempt to protect nature by assigning it monetary value is doomed, and that greenwashing by corporate interests like fossil fuel producers must be called out. Others insist that carbon markets have a role to play, and better processes must be developed to direct private capital towards carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots.
Shell is planning a massive expansion of its offsetting operations, and this has raised concerns that carbon credits are being treated as licences to pollute. Defenders of emissions trading argue that individuals should not be able to use fees to cancel out emissions from high-carbon activities, as this encourages the idea that lifestyles don’t need to change.
The carbon offsets market is worth around $2bn and is expected to grow significantly. It is not the solution to the enormous threat posed by dangerously high emissions, but with tougher oversight and regulation, it ought to be possible to design a system whereby forested nations are financially incentivised to protect nature. Exposing the weaknesses in the current system is a necessary first step in that direction.