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13 July 2024

& Education

‘Carbon offset projects that reduce deforestation don’t work’

The world’s biggest companies like Gucci, Disney and Delta Airlines compensate their carbon emissions by spending millions on projects reducing deforestation. Environmental scientist Thales Pupo West and colleagues discovered that 90 percent of these projects are not effective.

“We are fooling ourselves”, environmental scientist Thales Pupo West says. “Consumers and companies are putting billions of dollars into carbon offset programs that are not effective.” 

Forest carbon offset programs roughly fall apart into two groups: projects compensating carbon exhaust by planting new forests and projects that avoid the decline of existing forests. It is this last group that West and his colleagues looked into in an article published in Science


Carbon offset projects
These projects revolve around environmental conservation or protection by reducing, avoiding or removing greenhouse gas emissions.

No significant effect 

Their main conclusion: carbon offset through avoiding deforestation doesn’t work, despite the millions big companies like Disney and Shell are putting into it. 

The researchers investigated 27 projects in six developing countries in Africa, Asia and South America with a REDD+ label (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in developing countries). They compared the areas running REDD+ projects with similar areas without anti-deforestation programs and came to the conclusion that 90 percent of the programs have no significant effect. 


Measuring mistakes 

“The methodology that the REDD+ organizations themselves use to measure their achievements has important flaws”, West states. “A major issue is that the organizations measure progress in the project areas but don’t compare this to control areas. Changes in governance, or other general circumstances can have a positive effect in the project area without this being an achievement of the program.” 

Another flaw is that the measuring models tend to extrapolate the development of the last decades and assume that, without the program, this development would continue unaltered in the future, which often is not the case. 

The most sincere method of measuring the effect of a REDD+ program is comparing the areas to similar areas in which no program is running. This is also difficult, West admits, since circumstances are never exactly the same. “But scientists have developed pretty good models for a more honest comparison.” 


Flying less 

And what about this other type of carbon offset projects that invest in planting new trees? “In theory, the success of such reforestation programs is easier to measure”, West says, “but, up to now, scientists haven’t looked into them, so we cannot be sure about their effectiveness.” West hopes to do so in the future. 

He also hopes the anti-deforestation projects of REDD+ will improve their way of measuring their own effectiveness. Until then he wouldn’t advise putting your money in these projects.  

The best way to buy off flight shame, West says, is flying less. “Then at least you are sure you contribute positively to the reduction of carbon emissions.” 


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