The carbon offset market may not be the solution we want it to be


The key element of informed decision-making is facts. And not just any facts; the best, most tied-to-reality facts are needed to make the best decision.

One more thing: “alternative” facts only exist in alternative universes so use them at your intergalactic peril.

Which is what Verra, “the world’s leading carbon standard for the rapidly growing $2 billion voluntary [carbon] offset market,” appears to have done for years, reported The Guardian Jan. 18.

According to the newspaper, research found that “more than 90% of (the) rainforest offset credits,” packaged by Verra and purchased by greenie-wannabes like Shell, Disney, and Gucci, “are likely to be ‘phantom credits’ and do not represent genuine carbon reductions.”

Specifically, that means that “94% of the credits” Verra sold to “internationally renowned companies” had “no benefit to the climate” at all. Moreover, The Guardian continued, “The threat to forests had been overstated by about 400% for Verra projects.”

Big Biz wasn’t alone. Angst-filled grunge bands jumped on the CO2 bandwagon, too: Pearl Jam was among “…organizations that have bought rainforest offers approved by Verra.”

The findings hit experts like Barbara Haya, the director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, like a sledgehammer. After all, reported The Guardian, Haya “has been researching carbon credits for 20 years, hoping to find a way to make the system function.”

“‘The implications of this analysis are huge,’” she told the newspaper. “‘Companies are using credits to make claims of reducing emissions when most of these credits don’t represent emissions reductions at all.’”

Huge, sure; but they mirror what others found whenever forest carbon offsets are examined as a conscience cleanser for corporate CO2 creators. For example, when a ProPublica reporter dug into forest-based CO2 offsets four years ago she found – spoiler alert – the same sorry results as The Guardian found earlier this year.

“In case after case,” wrote Lisa Song in her story, An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth, “I found that carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured.”

“Ultimately,” Song added, “the polluters got a guilt-free pass to keep emitting CO2 but the forest preservation that was supposed to balance the ledger either never came or didn’t last.”

Several ag researchers have sent up similar flares to warn farmers that carbon markets may not benefit the farm, the farmer or the planet. To start, today’s highly industrialized farming makes long-term carbon sequestration — the key to selling any carbon credit — a tricky feat.

Second, there are few market rules in any ag carbon credit market anywhere for any farmer or buyer to follow, noted J. David Aiken, an ag economist who specializes in water and ag law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“What does the ag carbon credit market look like today?” Aiken asked in a 2021 paper. “It is the wild, wild west,” he warned.

The reason is simple: “No rules or regulations exist, so let the buyers and sellers beware. From where I sit, the two largest players appear to be speculators and pilot project developers.”

But the lack of transparent markets, standardized rules, or even solid agronomic science behind ag’s possible carbon sequestration has not kept the federal government from entering–and juicing–the nascent, unproven enterprise.

Last year’s bipartisan omnibus spending bill included the Growing Climate Solutions Act, explained Grist this winter, to “get the nation’s growers to adopt climate-friendly practices by encouraging participation in the carbon market.”

Like everyone else in the carbon market, however, farmers are “unclear how the law will address (their) biggest concerns.”

Other experts like William Rees, the University of British Columbia emeritus professor and co-creator of the human eco-footprint — later renamed “carbon footprint” — are far more clear-eyed on carbon sequestration, carbon trading, and carbon “net neutrality.”

“Carbon neutrality,” writes Rees in an April 17 email, “… is an engineer’s fantasy and popular wishful thinking. Or, as I like to put it, ‘Humanity’s propensity for socially constructing comforting shared illusions.’”

The takeaway is clear: There’s nothing neutral about “carbon neutrality” and our wishful thinking won’t make it so.


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.



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