Response to the Verified Carbon Standard
February 2, 2018
Author:
Fern

In November 2017, Fern published new research showing why forest carbon offsets should be ineligible for the United Nations (UN) International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) carbon neutral initiative.

Highlighting two problematic offset projects already being used by airlines, the publication revealed how forest offsets fail to permanently reduce carbon emissions and frequently disadvantage local communities.

One of the faulty projects featured in the study, Oddar Meanchey in Cambodia, was certified by the market-leading Verified Carbon Standard (VCS). By uncovering Oddar Meanchey’s negative impacts, Fern’s report showed that independent certification standards, on which ICAO plans to rely heavily, cannot be trusted.

Our report did not go unnoticed.

In reaction to Fern’s findings, Virgin Atlantic airline publicly committed to stop purchasing credits from one of the contentious projects. VCS also issued a public “rebuttal”  to our publication.

Fern wishes to take advantage of VCS’s statement to reassert why forest offsets and, more broadly offsetting itself, is not a viable solution to climate change or a way to protect communities’ rights.

A temporary buffer zone won’t solve forest offsets’ climate issues

As our research explained, forest offsets’ biggest problem is that they will never guarantee permanent emissions reductions.

VCS argues that it offers a solution by setting up a credit “buffer zone”. By cancelling credits in case of forest loss, VCS says they guarantee the permanence of the carbon their projects store. But once fossil carbon is released into the atmosphere—from an airplane, say—it will remain there for thousands of years. We don’t see how VCS can claim to maintain the projects in their buffer zone indefinitely, when it isn’t even clear that VCS will exist in a few decades.

Offsetting procedures financially disadvantage communities

We of course agree that communities protecting forests deserve support— most of Fern’s work focuses on promoting the rights and livelihoods of forest communities. But if VCS, or airlines, wish to help community-run  projects, we advise them to give their money to such projects without using them as offsets.

Our report has already explained why, in practice, treating forests as offsets tends to penalise the world’s poorest rather than the real drivers of deforestation like industrial palm oil or soy. In addition, treating forests as offsets requires the continuous carrying out of expensive Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (MRV) procedures to measure and monitor the carbon stocked by the forest. If done properly, this consumes a large chunk of the money airlines pay. If the forest wasn’t used as an offset, these procedures would be unnecessary and communities would get more revenue.

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The Paris Agreement leaves us no room for offsetting

But there is another point that is by far the most important: offsetting is incompatible with the objective set by the Paris Agreement to limit emissions to well below 2°C.

Latest research indicates that the world only has the equivalent of four years of current emissions to keep global temperature rises to 1.5°C. This set amount of emissions is defined as our remaining carbon budget.

Given the current lack of climate ambition, it is certain that our carbon budget will be blown. According to a recent Fern report, the only solution to stay on track with the Paris goal is to both bring fossil fuel emissions to zero by 2050 AND to absorb 500 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere by restoring degraded forests and protecting existing ones.

The reality is that we simply do not have space left in our carbon budget to use forests as offsets.

A new paradigm for voluntary action

In view of this, a flagship independent certification body is moving away from offsetting.

Last year, the Gold Standard recognised that the realities of the Paris Agreement’s goal pose a “life-threatening challenge” to the concept of offsetting. The standard now promotes a new paradigm for voluntary action, and calls companies to both reduce emissions AND finance climate friendly initiatives that contribute to the objectives set by the Sustainable Development Goals.

Despite this major shift, despite the Paris Agreement, and despite what the science says, the VCS continues to support credits from offsets. The carbon offset industry in general has been fighting to survive due to tepid demand for their credits. For them, ICAO’s plan to offset its unlimited carbon emissions growth is a major business opportunity.

Airlines and VCS, however, need to face the facts, as challenging as they are: offsetting is a giant loophole in the fight against climate change. Airlines should come up with measures to actually reduce emissions, not hide them behind forest offsets and pretend this is a sustainability plan. If they want to donate to forest communities in addition tothis, we very much encourage them to do so.

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