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Science

tree planting, carbon offset
Targeted tree planting is designed to increase carbon storage, remove air pollution, and purify water. Photo credit: Dave Gardner Creative National Forest Foundation / USDA

Stop pretending planting trees can justify fossil fuel emissions.

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Fossil fuel companies are no longer denying the realities of climate change — which many of them reported on privately for decades. Instead, they’re attempting to position themselves as key players in the “low-carbon transition.” And key to that is the companies’ embrace of the mantra of “net-zero” emissions. As we sweat through what a climate scientist has called a “gobsmackingly bananas” heat wave — three record-breaking months from July through September — the claims of net zero emissions are becoming ever more deeply entwined with fossil fuel companies’ public relations strategies.

Net zero is the idea that emissions in one place — an oil refinery or the cars and planes using its products — are balanced out by removal of carbon dioxide in another place. The elegance in that equation, which may make sense in a classroom, gets messy when it turns out that most of those other places intended to balance fossil fuel emissions are trees, which absorb CO2 and are located primarily in tropical forests.

The difficulty in tracking emissions reductions based on promises to reduce deforestation in such distant and complicated ecosystems has prompted a rising chorus of scientists, think tanks, UN officials, research institutions, and journalists who say it’s time to blow apart the system of carbon offsets. It’s time to return to the heart of the matter, they argue: reduce greenhouse gas emissions where they’re produced. Cut through the PR smokescreen, and it becomes clear that the carbon offsets approach to net zero emissions produces practically zero results.

At a conference of international investigative reporters last month in Gothenberg, Sweden — most of whom came from outside the United States and were affiliated with the Global Investigative Journalism Network — a repeated theme was accountability of the fossil fuel companies for the massive damage from climate change. On panels and in the hallways, there was a sense that it was time to challenge oil and gas companies’ promotion of net zero climate strategies.

The rise of net zero has fueled a rise in what’s known as the “voluntary carbon market,” — a multibillion market for the buying and selling of carbon offsets. At the conference, Jim Footner, director of the British-based climate research firm ARIA (analysis, research, insight, action), said that about 100 countries and more than a third of the world’s largest corporations have net zero targets. “Net zero is a veneer,” Footner said, “an empty space that companies can promote without being specific.”

I was on a panel with Leo Hickman, editor and director of Carbon Brief — a UK-based research institution and publication that deals with the economics of climate change and carbon markets. He shared the institution’s recent findings

  • Two-thirds of the world’s biggest companies with net zero targets are using carbon offsets to help meet their climate goals while emitting equal or greater amounts of greenhouse gasses.
  • More than half of offsets purchased by the biggest oil and gas companies were based on a promise either to prevent deforestation or to replant trees in degraded areas. And most, Carbon Brief concluded, overstated their effects.
  • Most of the offsets were based in developing countries. Chevron’s primary offset projects were in Colombia; Comcast’s were in China, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia; Shell’s were in Peru; and Bank of America’s were in Indonesia.

Most forest-based offset projects — the heart of net zero claims – played no significant role in decreasing deforestation, a recent study in Science concluded. That study assessed the veracity of emission-reduction claims in 26 offset projects in six countries.

For journalists, any claims to offsetting emissions by preserving trees in a distant forest warrant some immediate questions:

  • Who is verifying that promised emission reductions are occurring?
  • Is there an independent third party who can confirm that forests where an offset has promised to save trees has actually prevented them from being cut down or burned in a wildfire? Such fires are a higher possibility with each new year of rising emissions.
  • Is the replanting of trees in degraded areas, another key claim of the offset industry, actually taking place as promised?

An Associated Press investigation cited in the Carbon Brief report asked such questions when they discovered that offsets claimed by oil companies Shell and Total were in forests that were still being deforested. Similarly, in areas of Brazil and Cambodia claimed as offsets by Marathon Oil, steel producer ArcelorMittal S.A., and Uber, deforestation rates actually increased, according to UK-based Climate Home News. A collaborative investigation by The Guardian and German newspaper Die Zeit, meanwhile, found that 90 percent of the projects ostensibly validated by American company Verra were in fact “worthless” and delivered nothing close to the carbon sequestration that companies — including Shell, Disney, and Gucci — claimed.

Concern over the veracity of offsets that are central to most net zero claims is rising even among financial authorities. The US Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s Whistleblower Office in its Division of Enforcement issued an alert last summer calling on whistleblowers to come forward to report any instances of “fraud or manipulation” in the carbon offset marketplace.

In addition to oil and gas companies, the finance industry jumped on the net zero bandwagon. Two-thirds of the world’s 50 largest banks, and 37 of the world’s 50 largest asset managers  publicly committed to net zero portfolio targets, according to the New Climate Institute. The think tank, made up primarily of financial and policy analysts, concluded that most of the commitments were a diversion from real emission reductions. While claiming net zero aspirations, the dozen biggest oil companies are meanwhile channeling at least $100 million a day through 2030 in search of new deposits of oil and gas — the burning of which would virtually guarantee the increase in global heating would exceed two degrees Celsius. And of course, every offset that’s not actually offsetting anything translates into more greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. Increasingly sophisticated and insightful research and news reporting suggest that there’s plenty of source material for journalists to put the spotlight on net zero claims by the fossil fuel industry and its many enablers in the finance and PR industries.

The challenge for journalists has shifted. Thankfully we’re long past the kabuki theater days of “he said, she said” reporting on the evidence for climate change. Now it’s about separating the fact from the fiction in the responses by industry, and everyone else, to the climate crisis.

This story by Mark Schapiro was originally published by Capital & Main and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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