The Nature Recovery Podcast

Phantom Carbon Credits with Patrick Greenfield

April 19, 2023 The Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery Season 1 Episode 4
Phantom Carbon Credits with Patrick Greenfield
The Nature Recovery Podcast
More Info
The Nature Recovery Podcast
Phantom Carbon Credits with Patrick Greenfield
Apr 19, 2023 Season 1 Episode 4
The Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery

Patrick Greenfield is a biodiversity and environment reporter for the Guardian and the Observer.  In January 2023, a joint investigation by the Guardian, Die Zeit and Source Material found that the forest carbon offsets approved by the world’s leading certifier and used by major corporations for climate claims are largely worthless.

In this podcast we discuss some of the implications and dive into the challenges and complexities of wanting to do the right thing in a world where conservation for profit now exists.
You can hear more from Patrick at his Leverhulme Talk here:
https://youtu.be/YpuFaU99mQ8

The original article referenced is here:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/jan/18/revealed-forest-carbon-offsets-biggest-provider-worthless-verra-aoe


The Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery is interested in promoting a wide variety of views and opinions on nature recovery from researchers and practitioners.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers alone, they do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery, or its researchers.

The work of the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery is made possible thanks to the support of the Leverhulme Trust.

Show Notes Transcript

Patrick Greenfield is a biodiversity and environment reporter for the Guardian and the Observer.  In January 2023, a joint investigation by the Guardian, Die Zeit and Source Material found that the forest carbon offsets approved by the world’s leading certifier and used by major corporations for climate claims are largely worthless.

In this podcast we discuss some of the implications and dive into the challenges and complexities of wanting to do the right thing in a world where conservation for profit now exists.
You can hear more from Patrick at his Leverhulme Talk here:
https://youtu.be/YpuFaU99mQ8

The original article referenced is here:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/jan/18/revealed-forest-carbon-offsets-biggest-provider-worthless-verra-aoe


The Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery is interested in promoting a wide variety of views and opinions on nature recovery from researchers and practitioners.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers alone, they do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery, or its researchers.

The work of the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery is made possible thanks to the support of the Leverhulme Trust.

Stephen Thomas:

Welcome to the nature recovery podcast, we're going to take a closer look at some of the solutions to counter biodiversity decline. And we'll find out more about the people behind these ideas. Hello, and thank you for downloading the nature recovery podcast. I'm your host, this week's Tim Thomas. And I'm so excited for a number of reasons. First of all, next week, we're going to have a guest host. So Joseph gent is going to be co presenting with me. And that means hopefully we'll have some new voices joining the podcast if you're getting sick of my voice. Also, the time of recording Spring is in the air. So the natural nature recovery of the seasons is happening, daffodils are blooming. And finally we have some amazing guests lined up. First of all, Patrick Greenfield from The Guardian, who in the sphere of environmental journalism broke the internet with his story about phantom credits and some of the problems with the red plus scheme. So enough about me talking on about spring, let's go over to Patrick Greenfield. So my guest today is Patrick Greenfield, who is a biodiversity and environment reporter for The Guardian, and the observer writing about biodiversity loss and the climate crisis. Before the Guardian, he was working as a producer with CNN, and he has a master's degree in International and development economics from Yale University. Patrick was part of the Guardians cop 26 reporting team in Glasgow, and is covering negotiations for biodiversity of cop 15. And has probably been told to cops but more recently, he along with a number of other reporters,

Unknown:

exposed one of the the biggest sort of scandals and carbon credits around Vera and Phantom credits on which we'll talk about a bit more. Okay, so welcome, Patrick.

Stephen Thomas:

No worries. So within the centre, we've been looking at the the phrase nature recovery, obviously with the Centre for niche recovery from different perspectives. And every time I asked him this, that we get a different answer. So as an environmental journalist, when I talk to you about NATO recovery, what does that mean to you?

Patrick Greenfield:

It's a, it's a tough thing to be precise about. But when I'm visiting projects and around the world, I think I'm looking for two things, a reference to the past and a reference to the future, right, we are going to live through the peak of humanity's population, probably in the impacts that has on the world. And I when when we think about nature recovery, what I want to see or hope to see is, I guess, conservation of what's there and what has been with us for centuries and 1000s of years in some cases. But then also, part of that, for me, I think is is adapting to the massive demands humanity is putting on on planet Earth. And thinking cleverly very cleverly about how we do that. How, I don't know I demand for food and water and use of biodiversity is incorporated with how we use nature and live alongside it. Because that's key to its recovery as well, I think. So your recent work that was pretty groundbreaking and was publicised in The Guardian and in other papers and then all over the internet, really exposed at one of the world's leading carbon certifiers, Vera had about 90% of the rainforest offset credits, not all their credits, the rainforest offset credits based on phantom credits. And essentially these didn't relate to genuine carbon reductions. Now, the carbon markets very complicated. So for those that don't know the details, can you explain the real basics of how the carbon market works, and more specifically, the role that certifies like bearer what the role that they play in it. So, carbon offsetting can get complicated, but the idea is simple. It's that good can cancel out bad. So when it comes to carbon emissions, when we fly, drive, eat me even breathe, right there are emissions that are related to that. And the idea with carbon offsetting is that you can neutralise that impact, you can cancel out that that impact impact by paying for an reduction on avoided emission elsewhere, whether that be through a cookstove project tree planting renewable energy in developing countries. The very common type, though popular type is red plus avoiding deforestation, protecting key ecosystems like the Amazon, the Congo Basin rainforest in Indonesia, and we know about the threats, right. It's the second largest source of carbon emissions and home to a massive amount of the world's biodiversity these these areas we must protect and so in theory, when you go on holiday to the south of Spain or wherever it might be, you can make that a carbon neutral holiday Under the theory of sort of setting by paying for forests in Indonesia or the Amazon, that we're going to be cut down, to be left standing to keep sucking in carbon from the atmosphere and to keep being those amazing, amazing ecosystems.

Unknown:

Okay. And then there are specifically that kind of certifier. They look into the schemes and say, yep, this is this is a genuine carbon reduction. Effort.

Patrick Greenfield:

Yeah, so they provide integrity. So the market now for voluntary carbon credits is about 2 billion. And Vera is is responsible for about three quarters of all carbon credits that are approved. And they, about 40% of the ones they approve are red plus credits, avoided deforestation credits. And their job is very simply to say what's real and what isn't when it comes to an emission reduction. And they host methodologies that are essentially recipes for making carbon credits, right, this is a totally unregulated sector. So those claims that you see on the TV in the supermarket on the internet, have carbon neutral ice cream, carbon neutral, flying, whatever it might be, that all relies on the strength of various carbon standard VCs, the rules that they have approved for carbon credits around the world.

Unknown:

Okay, that's great. And we will link to your articles in the shownotes. Because, I mean, I could get it to explain it. But the article does it perfectly in there's some great illustrations there about how, you know, areas that they were essentially protecting, were never really under under threat. And you can see where where the real threat is, is where roads are going through the Amazon. That's where deforestation occurs. So if you if you take your baseline as a

Stephen Thomas:

somewhere, that's never going to be under threat, and you said that's getting protected. Well, you know, right, next door is the area that you should be protecting, and there's nothing happening there, along with many other things that were happening out there. You don't start cutting down a forest from the middle, you saw you start at the edge, you work towards the middle. Yeah, yeah. And I think, you know, I've done some forestry studies. And again, you see that the impact on roads all over the country, that's forestry, whether it's for she rose, you know, it's almost like a, a time lapse of watching, you know, leaf cutter ants or something where the, where the trail hits, that's when the deforestation occurs. So, I mean, when I was learning a bit about forest in the carbon market, and doing some environmental regeneration projects in East Africa, I don't know if I've got a criminal mind. But I just kept thinking, wow, this would be really, really easy if you wanted to do some fraudulent carbon projects, but but it was still a shock to see, you know, this figure of like, 90%, and to see the scale at which, you know, poor practice, I'll call it was going on with with red plus. And I guess, you know, what were your feelings? Because you knew a lot more about the carbon market than it goes into this, but going into the investigation? And I guess, how do you feel about some of the things that you witnessed, and I suppose especially around some of the human rights violations alleged to be linked to the scheme?

Unknown:

So that's my first question. And sort of secondly, is it worrying that at the moment from what I can see is it seems to be down to journalists and independent scientists to kind of police this market? Because the certification isn't what it may provide integrity, that certainly leaves us with many, many doubts as to how, how much integrity there is. So yeah, going into this? And then what from what you found out? That it changed the way you feel? And what were the things that really stood out for you what you saw? Let's start with the first question. And I think there are two parts to that, in terms of what we found that out in our investigation. I think there's a there's a technical part really that question of

Patrick Greenfield:

what deforestation has been avoided, and what were the resulting emissions that were stopped from from going into the atmosphere. And the second point of the social impact in terms of the integrity of the carbon credits. I wasn't really surprised by that, because looking at the methodologies, I know, I know a little bit about how you kind of measure impact, we do it all the time. And in other fields, you can get a good estimate of how many lives have been saved by the vaccine, or what was the impact of a German reunification or we're doing these calculations all the time, using these statistical methods. And that is, rightly or wrongly kind of where where humanity is, kind of got got to on what what impact actually is. And these methodologies weren't following those standards. So I kind of always thought, yeah, that there are going to be big problems there. The social science of this really surprised me. So in the studies that were, that were the reason why we got to kind of 90% is that there are lots of big schemes that aren't having any impact. act at all, unfortunately. But there were some they did, they did have a small impact, sometimes actually, kind of one or two had a big impact. And we try to visit those to see what that looked like, what what is it about these areas, these projects, that was having a positive carbon effect for all of us. And I went to a project in northern Peru in Sumatra province, which was co run by Conservation International, and the Peruvian national park service, highly reputable organisation, one of the biggest conservation NGOs in the world. And what I was really surprised to find was that this project had created enormous problems for local people. Some that I spoke with, who lived inside were broadly supportive of the impact of the scheme. Others were not some people inside the project, were having their homes cleared, felt like they were being being forced from from where they were, where they lived, because of the carbon in the trees. And something I've learned in this job and is very obvious in the science is, really, this is a, this is a human problem. It's people cut down trees, and you've got to deal with with those social issues. If you want to do anything on deforestation, these are, these are often economic choices about unhappy people who are just trying to get by these, these were subsistence farmers that I was speaking with. And so I think, there you've got an example of credits that do have some carbon integrity. But if you're a major corporation, or I know you want to go on holiday, and you want to have a carbon neutral flight, do you really want to be paying for people to be encouraged to leave certain areas? Or have to have these have your money linked to negative effects? I'm not saying that there's kind of intention on anybody really involved there? Apart from a few people, obviously, but it's really it's really complicated. And it left me feeling very uncertain about about the whole system.

Unknown:

Right, I appreciate that sort of quite a quite an unclear answer, really. But I think this is an unclear situation about about what we do next. Yeah. And, I mean, it's changed the way I you know, for so long, the the removal of carbon, for me has sort of been quite a technical challenge. And so yeah, you just do kind of, but more and more with the people I talk to them, what I learned here is like, well, you know, if you do that, by who owns that forest that is sucking up all the carbon. And what does that, you know, carbon is a Western, you know, the excess carbon is a Western problem. And now we're solving it by saying to some indigenous people, or some locals, you can have access to this forest anymore, because we need that to protect the world from the damage that we've done. And there's huge ethical implications there and social justice issues that I think are complex, and there aren't easy answers. I guess on the last point, I mean, maybe there are other governing bodies, but from what I see, you know, who police's organisations like Vera? And again, there's no, not trying to suggest that they're, you know, intentionally there's a corruption there or anything like that, that you know, that, but there was clearly a some flaws in their calculation. And to me, that doesn't mean another organisation checking their home work, it's down to journalists and an independent researchers. Is that a fair comment from what you know, of the carbon market and sort of how it works? Or is it? That kind of neoliberal the market should regulate itself? Right, is that that's the the the idea behind it? I think that's what many people in the carbon market would say no, it's worth noting, as well, that variable note noting that very, totally dispute the findings of our investigation, don't think the studies we looked at have that much they can they can learn from they don't think it's the right way to really measure the impact of the of their projects.

Patrick Greenfield:

I think I'm speaking very broadly about about the carbon offsetting industry. And that includes I would include academics as well who work under my help carbon organisations with with report that there are big conflicts of interests everywhere, right? From project developers, to standards, to even sometimes people who live inside the communities. There's, there's loads of money in this world now. Right? It's multi billion, and it's only going to grow. And really, it suits everybody. Sometimes they just ignore the environmental integrity of these credits. And and just say, Yeah, this is this is having an impact when actually often it's not. And if this is going to play a role in our climate policy, biodiversity policy, it's got to have environmental integrity, otherwise it's nothing and actually crucially makes climate change, biodiversity loss, whatever worse something that's really struck me in terms of the reaction to our investigation is people really believe sometimes that that product is carbon neutral. They really believe that I sincerely believe believe that about advertising, we're surprised. I've got my LinkedIn. I've got messages from ESG officers who were pretty surprised by it by it too.

Unknown:

And

Patrick Greenfield:

it might be that I don't want to academics. So I'll go on never believe that other people, white people. So naive woke

Stephen Thomas:

up, most people don't have the time to, to worry about whether something really is carbon neutral. And you do need, it doesn't need to, you're looking at someone that buys his shoes, because they plant a tree in the Amazon is like they're not actually going out there and planting a tree or the like, and the more and more you kind of dig, you find, okay, there's money, there's money in exchange for services. But

Unknown:

we all it's, there's a whole new area of marketing that I think for people that are trying to do the right thing is is very powerful. And I'm not saying these companies are sort of disingenuous, but yeah, there is a where does that money actually go? And what does it do? And some schemes, you know, I've some schemes, I see my own eyes are like, really, really great. Other ones are maybe not so flawed. Not not so not so great, sorry. I just get much the money says kind of. And this, I'm gonna ask you a personal opinion here, not for the guardian or that but you talked about the money, I think I saw a recent calculation as the carp global carbon market was worth over 900 billion. And I know recently that we are on the tip of the iceberg that a lot of the there's a lot of carbon projects that are underway, but they haven't started claiming the carbon yet because you need the trees to grow. So there, you know, there are lots and lots of people investing in this. So there's going to be a staggering amount of money coming through in the carbon market. And whenever you got carbon offsetting and when you've got a market, there's always a financial incentive, right? To show that you've you've maximised the reduction of carbon or the sequestration. And I keep thinking with all with a lot of environment, things about God hearts law, you know, when a measure becomes a target, when you're trying to target maximum it ceases to be a good measure, like, are we measuring carbon sequestration? Or are we maximising it? There are other other schemes, I think, where people have pointed out that the measurements aren't entirely accurate or justified, does that make the whole market unstable as a mechanism and keep until it sort of ceases to do what it said originally, but a few people will get rich along the way? And actually, it's, you know, we should sort of should abandon it. Another view? I guess, it's like, well, you can you can do both. And maybe there is a better way. I mean, I'm a fan of more of like a carbon tax or pollution tax, but that doesn't exist, whereas a carbon market does exist. So you know, other views are saying, look, the carbon market is still quite new. I mean, new, I think it's well over 20 years now. But certainly, you know, it's still new, and compared to, you know, exchange markets and so on. And it has flaws. But until we've got a better mechanism, actually, is one of the best ways currently of getting money into carbon reduction projects, like growing new forests, afforestation, clean cookstoves, all these things that, you know, can do a lot of good. And as long as journalists like yourself and other people are looking into it, then in theory, it will begin to regulate over time, and we don't want to scrap these fantastic schemes. So there's the it's totally broken argument. And it's going to do harm, because we're wasting time by by putting money into things that are of little environmental use. And then there's the reform argument, which is like, it's good. But it needs to get a lot better over time. I sometimes I'm not sure where I am. But I guess kind of how Where do you sort of how when you look at it personally, where do you sort of what are your feelings about the carbon market? And yeah, between those sort of two opposing viewpoints?

Patrick Greenfield:

I think my response to that is like, No, we didn't really talk about nature. But it's clear to me that conservation is becoming an industry. There are more and more for profit conservation companies out there now and there will be more in 1234 or five years time. And I think, to answer your question that it comes down to what we what we really want from this, offsetting is about causality. If we thinking about neutralisation effects, carbon and carbon, our carbon avoided and if that's what we want to measure, then it doesn't matter if you're trying really hard. It doesn't matter if your scheme has health benefits or biodiversity benefits that can't be measured in carbon or anything else like that. It's the carbon nothing else with the comes first and that's that's tough. That's that's that's a really tough system and also, this system for very deforestation relies on threats. You need the threat otherwise it doesn't work. Let's let's take what's happening in Brazil with the change of President recently By having Bolsonaro in charge in Brazil, and the massive destruction of the of the Amazon that we saw there, I'm sure many of those carbon offsetting schemes that were not really very effective before Bolsonaro, overnight became pretty effective. And that began change with Lula. And there are other governments around the world that have countries that have lots of carbon offsetting schemes who have the very high rates of deforestation and governments don't really care about it or even actively involved in the deforestation. And is that is that what we want? Is that Is that what we want for a system that whether we have to have presidents and leaders like that for it to work? Or can we do better? I'm sure that in some cases, carbon offsetting will be the right thing to do to mitigate that threat, right, where you've got someone who has to choose between chocolate Bob Coker, Cadbury cacao, or pineapple farming or banana plantations, whatever it might be, and leaving the forest standing. And we can make sure actually there's there's more money in keeping the forest standing. Sure. But that system only rewards places where there's a big deforestation threat and misses out countries like Babylon, Costa Rica, there are many others, Guyana, Guyana that have not destroyed their forests, and have massive carbon sinks, or in some cases, reverse that deforestation and not going to get financially compensated for it. So really, we need to make sure the offsetting system has integrity, but we'll probably also need something else that's much bigger. I think a financial mechanism that pays countries to keep their trees standing generous, in a generous way for both carbon and biodiversity is something we need to think harder about. And when we think about the buyer side of this, as well. And by that I mean, what companies do and what companies claim. With these credits, we need to be I think, a bit more more careful there too. I don't know if you can make your holiday carbon neutral, really, with with these kinds of kinds of credits. I personally would love to be able to do it, right, this idea that I mean, I'm going to start my lecture with something like this right? Many, many of us are environmentalists who fly and drive and eat meat and may were part of the problem and don't want to be and want to do something about it and want to cancel that out. And it would be amazing if you could pay money for that to just go away.

Unknown:

But really, we know, deep down many of us that life's not like that. Yeah, there's some there's some hard truths. There's, you know, all groups for us that are two years old, if you cut them down a million cookstoves isn't gonna like it doesn't. There's some really odd equations you get with kind of carbon thing. And I think that's a that's a hard truth. But I think there's a giant sequoia worth. Yeah, yeah. Those are those are the the calculations that the weird things that you said I was getting to. So I mean, in terms of that energy recovery, and I think I'm interested just because of your, your view, I mean, you probably see some of the toughest sides of what's going on in nature. But are you Would you consider yourself an optimist, a pessimist or a pragmatist or something else when it comes to humanity's relationship with nature and our own our prospects for the future?

Patrick Greenfield:

I think I'm a realist about it. I'm not I'm not optimistic or pessimistic. I think it's very clear that in my lifetime, and hopefully my children's lifetime, what I'm saying I hope I will see some AI and they will see some pretty scary things, we will see the change massively. at the polls in the tropics, the way we feed ourselves, the way we were the entire global economy works is going to change, there's going to be big impacts on that and we'll see 10 billion plus humans probably, that's, that's gonna be quite something to be part of. I now have very negative consequences, environmentally for the planet. And because of the way we consume, especially in rich countries. At the same time, that doesn't mean that I'm going to kind of give up or I don't know usually used to scare me, but doesn't really anymore. I just kind of

Stephen Thomas:

hope for the best. Yeah, that's absolutely fair enough. I think you know, for me, humanity is very good sometimes when there's no other easy option left, and we're rapidly running out of easy options, which is what

Unknown:

Right, don't think but there's sort of, there has to come a point, right? Where it's like, well, like you say it's changes inevitable. I think everyone would agree on that, what the impacts of that change and how quickly you recover from it. But that is still there's, there's there's a lot still worth fighting for. But yeah, it's a very sobering and I don't think anyone would question your, your Outlook. So not quite grim and bleak low. So if you didn't have to work, and you wanted to escape from all of this, and talking about phantom credits, and so on, where would be the natural environment that you would go? Where would you hang out? Where's your where's your space in nature that you'd like to live and be to, I'm giving you I'm giving you a free a free carbon neutral flight to anywhere to go to just hang out for a few days and just kind of turn off your laptop or whatever. And

Patrick Greenfield:

I really want to go to Namibia. And I become quite fascinated recently with aquifers. And understand I understand that the desert, they're an amazing ecosystem. And I know them, there's lions and the sea lions, the rest of that that survives on these enormous aquifers that are underneath parts Namib desert and I would love to see that for myself.

Unknown:

And yeah, that that would be incredible. It's great. Another another fan of deserts. I would like there's so many adjacent built two weeks ago was talking about we don't have enough love for deserts and they're full of biodiversity even though we've kind of got the name is. It's very bleak. Anyway, Patrick, thank you so much for your time. And as ever, you know, if you haven't read the main article, but there are numerous follow up articles, please, please read it is really, really important. And it gives you a great understanding of the carbon market some of the challenges with it. And yeah, thank you so much for your for your time and for your work. It's really important. Thanks for having me. You've been listening to the nature recovery podcast with me, Stephen Thomas. Please don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you can, please consider leaving us a review, as it will really help other people to find us. Also, why not consider sharing this episode with someone you know, you never know. You might get them interested in the wonderful field of nature recovery.

stephen thomas:

If you want to find out more about the activities of the levy Hume Centre for nature recovery. You can find us on Twitter at nature recovery, or you can visit our website for more information. That's www dot Maitra recovery.ox.ac.uk Thanks so much for listening.