Exaggerated emission savings and legal challenges: the reality of forest carbon offsets

by | 03 Aug 2023 | New reports

Research commissioned by Stay Grounded reveals that international airlines have bought carbon credits from the Cordillera Azul National Park, Alto Mayo Conservation Initiative, Tambopata Brazil Nut Concessions and RMDLT Portel REDD projects in Peru and Brazil. All of which have been shown to have inflated their alleged emissions savings. When carbon credits from these projects are used to offset emissions from flying, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere keep rising even if airlines or passengers claim to have compensated for the emissions.    

Offsetting: a dangerous distraction

‘Flying isn’t a problem if you pay a bit more to offset the emissions.’ That’s the message airlines are promoting. This claim, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. A joint investigation by The Guardian, Die Zeit and SourceMaterial revealed in January 2023 that forest carbon credits approved by the world’s leading standard-setting organisation, Verra, and used by big corporations, could make global heating worse. Research commissioned by Stay Grounded shows that airlines including United Airlines, Iberia, British Airways and Air France have bought carbon credits from forest offset projects in Latin America that have recently been exposed as exaggerating their alleged emission savings. 

As airlines have ramped up their preposterous claims that buying carbon credits can render climate-damaging flights “CO2 neutral” or even “climate neutral”, scrutiny has also grown. Airline adverts promising “CO2 neutral” flights have been deemed misleading by advertising watchdogs. The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM), for example, noted in relation to a Ryanair advert that “[a]irlines may offer CO2 compensation schemes, but they cannot give the impression that CO2 compensation will make flying sustainable.” In August 2022, Lufthansa Group’s Austrian Airlines was reprimanded by the Austrian Advertising Council for misleading adverts promising “CO2-neutral” flying. The Dutch Reclame Code Commissie (RCC) found that a KLM advert promising “CO2 neutral air travel” painted too rosy a picture and was misleading. 

Acronym buster

REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation of forests. It is a term coined during the UN climate negotiations for offset projects that generate carbon credits based on the narrative that a forest would have been destroyed without the project. The project owner uses this hypothetical narrative to calculate how much carbon would have been released into the atmosphere without the project. In a second calculation, the project owner monitors how much of the forest remains with the project in operation. and the difference is the volume of emissions allegedly saved by the REDD project.

For more information about how carbon credits are generated and how projections are inflated, see How CO2 Certificates Are Created.

Exaggerated emission savings, legal challenges and suspended projects 

British Airways, Quantas, WebJet, and Aer Lingus have bought carbon credits from the Cordillera Azul National Park REDD project in Peru. An Associated Press investigation into the project “raises doubts about whether the project has delivered on its promise to counter-balance emissions” and shows how the hypothetical emissions that would have existed without the project were inflated. For example, in Pampa Hermosa, one district used in the calculations, the project owner assumed that the population would grow by more than 700% without the carbon project activities. But the park’s own figures showed the population had grown by only 2.2% on average per year between 1993 and 2002. These inflated figures increase the volume of emissions that are allegedly prevented and therefore the number of carbon credits an offset project can sell. As journalist David Hill asks: “Isn’t one of Shell’s carbon offsets projects fundamentally flawed? Peru’s Cordillera Azul National Park was established years before the project started, raising doubts about how CO2 sequestered there is “additional”.”

United Airlines is among the buyers of carbon credits from the Alto Mayo Conservation Initiative, a REDD project in Peru managed by the conservation NGO Conservation International. Researcher Lauren Gifford carried out part of her PhD research in the Alto Mayo REDD project area. She describes the REDD project as “carbon colonialism”. Reporting about her investigation into the same project, journalist Blanca Begert’s article covers how carbon credits have driven people from their homes. The Guardian article headline reads: ‘Nowhere else to go’: forest communities of Alto Mayo, Peru, at centre of offsetting row. 

A stove that, according to dozens of interviewees, had little use and many people threw out
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A stove that, according to dozens of interviewees, had little use and many people threw out

LATAM and Iberia have used carbon credits from Nut Concessions, a REDD project in Brazil run by the Peruvian company Bosques Amazônicos that has been assigned a “C” rating by the carbon offset rating agency BeZero. “Carbon credits rated “C” provide a very low likelihood of achieving 1 tonne of CO2e avoidance or removal”, BeZero explains. In other words, it’s very unlikely that a carbon credit from the project would actually compensate fossil fuel emissions, from, say, flying. 

Air France and Delta Airlines have bought carbon credits from RMDLT Portel REDD, a project covering nearly 200,000 hectares of land in the Brazilian Amazon state of Pará which has also been rated by BeZero as providing a low likelihood of reducing emissions. A report based on a visit to the Portel region by the World Rainforest Movement notes that residents found the deforestation projected for the project areas in the absence of the REDD projects to be exaggerated. “This is the same conclusion reached by a scientific study analysing the deforestation predictions that several REDD projects in the Amazon have made,”, the WRM report notes.  Among the project’s “benefits for the community” that are mentioned in the project documents is an improved cooking stove. “The WRM team heard from dozens of women and men about the uselessness of these stoves. People commented that they didn’t use, or even threw out their stoves because they are not useful for their way of cooking food,” the WRM report notes.

LATAM, Lufthansa Group and Venice Marco Polo Airport have all bought carbon credits from the Jarí Pará REDD project in Brazil. Despite investigations by competent authorities into its use of false documents to forge titles and claim land tenure, the project was certified as meeting the VCS carbon standard. In 2018, state authorities identified the Fazenda Saracua as public land illegitimately claimed by Jarí. But only after media investigations in March 2023 did Verra, the organisation managing the VCS standard, put the project on hold. Verra, however, has no mechanism to recall the well over a million carbon credits already sold as meeting the standard should it find that the project does not meet the standards after all. 

The Florestal Santa Maria REDD project in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso is the subject of an article by the Thomson Reuters Foundation titled “Fears of ‘subprime’ carbon assets stall crypto mission to save rainforest”.  TAP and Delta are among the buyers of carbon credits from the project. The Thomson Reuters Foundation article notes a list of broken promises. The project proponents had promised “to work with the local government to build a technical school to teach high-school graduates agroforestry techniques, but the project never got off the ground. And a plan to restore degraded areas nearby was not launched.” The logging operation has also lost the ‘certification it gained in 2013 from the Forest Stewardship Council for sustainable forest management because the body’s requirements – including monitoring to show any logging done there was legal – were not met.’ This certification was one of the main selling points in the REDD project application. The project remains registered on the VCS project registry. According to the issuance records on the project registry, carbon credits from the project have been used as recently as May 2023 by Boing “to achieve Net Zero emissions target for Scope 1 and Scope 2, with additional purchases to go beyond the target and address business travel emissions in 2022.”

These are some of the forest carbon and tree plantation projects in Latin America that research shows have been used by the aviation industry. Other examples include an industrial tree plantation in Uruguay which private jet rental company NetJets euphemistically refers to as ‘land restoration” and tree planting offset projects that may store carbon for a few decades but cannot compensate the climate impact of adding more fossil carbon to the atmosphere.  

Phantom offset credits cannot compensate the emissions from flying

As a recent study notes, “offset credits are an accounting instrument to reduce […] emissions on a nominal level, but do not affect them in a practical sense. Consequently, offset credits cannot contribute to the decarbonization of the aviation sector. Moreover, it is highly uncertain whether offset credits represent genuine emission reductions or removals.” Carbon offsetting thus presents a dangerous distraction from the urgent task at hand: drastically reducing emissions, also in the aviation sector. Flying is a problem for the climate and its climate impact will not be erased by airlines and their customers paying a little extra for carbon offsets.