How the Nature Conservancy Sparked a Global Investigation into Carbon Offsets

By Vivian Duncan | Updated on September 13, 2021

Carbon offset sales have doubled in the last ten years, with Nature Conservancy offsets getting on board early, and demand seems to be holding steady despite the downturn from the pandemic.1 In fact, the offset market is projected to grow to 200 billion dollars a year by 2050.8

But this exponential growth hasn’t been without its ‘pains.’ And Nature Conservancy actually sparked a global investigation into carbon offsets after an internal audit.

The results were surprising…

Parade cart carrying the Nature Conservancy logo on the wagon.

The Nature Conservancy Controversy

External reporting triggered The Nature Conservancy’s self-review of their forestry projects.

After corporations such as BlackRock, Walt Disney, and Chevrolet purchased credits from The Nature Conservancy to offset their CO2 emissions, Bloomberg Green reported that these projects were counting carbon dioxide savings from existing trees that weren’t endangered. Per Bloomberg Green, in one of their projects, less than 1% of trees were cut a year. In other forests involved in these projects, no trees were cut at all.2

The underlying issue here is an important one. Saving an existing endangered tree or planting a new tree is the only way to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions in a forestry project.

Counting any other way overstates the project’s savings. It also undermines the credibility of the offset provider.

In response to the controversy, The Nature Conservancy vowed to update its project plans. Admirably, they took this external reporting and voluntarily implemented an internal audit, in hopes to provide full transparency.

Over recent months, many offset companies and providers have come under heightened scrutiny for selling ’empty credits.’ In 2013, the Audubon Society sold carbon credits for a 1,000-year-old forest in South Carolina that was not in danger of deforestation.10

Offsetting carbon emissions through effective and impactful programs is a fundamental part of helping fight the results of climate change. But, in order to ensure that these tools actually produce the benefits the planet desperately needs, they must establish real, measurable impacts.

Do Carbon Offsets Really Work?

The carbon offset industry is in something of a “gold rush” phase. Companies are experimenting with many kinds of projects to meet growing consumer demand to reduce environmental impact. Some of their methodologies are tested and proven, while others are experimental. With experimental methods, the results are unknown, but can work if implemented correctly.

Carbon offsets have emerged as a method for fighting the negative impact of way too much CO2 in the atmosphere. By definition, offsets mitigate the emission of carbon dioxide as a result of human activity, because scientists argue that excessive heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere are contributing to floods, fires, droughts, and other weather abnormalities.3

These “climate related disasters,” include doubling of floods and storms over the last 20 years, as well as increased “geo-physical events including earthquakes and tsunamis.”4

Therefore, companies and businesses like Delta, Disney and Bank of America are buying carbon offsets, often any way they can, if even the math behind their CO2 accounting has yet to be worked out.

An 8 Billion Trees graphic of how many carbon offsets certain businesses bought during the years 2017-2019

The carbon offset market in the US is largely unregulated. So, there are no standardized calculations that companies must follow. Sometimes, this leads to savings claims without evidence or action.

5 Types of Carbon Offsets and Their Impact

There are many types of carbon offsets, but each are implemented in different ways, meaning they have slightly different impacts beyond the amount of CO2 they can sequester from the atmosphere.

  1. Renewable Energy: If an energy source is considered renewable, that means that it can be replenished on a human time scale. Because these types of energy can be easily replenished, renewable energy programs help to phase out reliance on energy types that use GHG emitting fossil fuels. Renewable energy projects can include wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric power, and biofuel
  2. Methane Capture & Combustion: Methane (CH4) has an even worse impact on global warming than carbon dioxide, over a longer period of time. The meat industry, landfills, and wastewater plants are all major sources of methane emissions, but methane capture and combustion projects can help mitigate the amount that escapes into the atmosphere. However, these projects can be expensive to start out, which means they aren’t quite as accessible to most companies or individuals.
  3. Energy Efficiency: The less energy that a household or business uses, the less CO2 is emitted from burning fossil fuels, which is what most power grids rely on. Energy Efficiency projects use funds to make buildings, campuses, or neighborhoods run as energy-efficient as possible. These projects can include a plethora of methods, including cogeneration (converting one fuel source into two types of energy), improving fuel efficiency, and using energy efficient construction.
  4. Forestry: This is perhaps the most popular type of carbon offset, because it is much more accessible to the public. For capturing and storing CO2, trees are one of the best options out there. Forestry programs can also work in a few different manners: afforestation, which is planting trees where they did not previously exist, reforestation, which is planting trees in areas that were deforested, and avoided deforestation, which means they save a forest that is at risk for being cut down for commercial or agricultural purposes.
  5. Agriculture-based: Some scientists and farmers have started proposing agricultural-based carbon banks to help. According to claims, farmers who use regenerative agriculture strategies such as no-till planting, cover cropping, and crop rotation could generate carbon credits. While it’s clear that regenerative agriculture improves soil health, among other positive environmental impacts, its effect on carbon dioxide mitigation has yet to be well-studied.6,7

Why Is Carbon Offset Verification Important?

Verified carbon offsets guarantee that you’re getting more of what you expect from the offset projects where you invest. The Verified Carbon Standard by Verra, Climate Action Reserve, Gold Standard, and American Carbon Registry are among the most well-respected independent protocols for verification.9 Look for projects that have transparent government contracts or one of these standards, when making your buying decision.

The most rigorous protocols make use of on-site verification. It’s easy to fill out a paper checklist. Having an inspector verify the number and conditions of the trees on-site adds a higher level of accuracy to the savings estimates.

Verification also helps identify the best carbon offset providers make the most of improvement opportunities. With each inspection, they learn how to improve their operations, including planting, reporting, and monitoring. Quality carbon offset providers are mission-driven organizations. Verification helps them further their mission to reduce CO2 emissions on our mother planet. With a forestry project, this means getting more trees into the ground and keeping them there.

What Makes a Successful Carbon Offset Project?

Because there are so many ways to do a carbon offset, there are slight differences in what to look for in a successful carbon offset project. However, forestry projects are at the core of The Nature Conservancy’s environmental efforts, so for the purposes of this article, the focus is on those.

At the minimum, a successful carbon offset tree planting project should do four things.

  1. It should cause new emission reductions. This usually means planting new trees, but can also involve preventing tree removal.
  2. The project must be permanent. A tree that is cut down or that isn’t planted at all can’t capture carbon dioxide. So, the project should have a plan to ensure the trees will serve out their lifespan.
  3. Savings in one location should not cause CO2 release elsewhere. For example, a project cannot save trees on one side of a road while planning to cut down trees on the other side.
  4. Lastly, the project should be verified by a government agency or audited by a respected and independent third party.

It’s not easy for projects to meet these four requirements, but they go a long way towards fixing the flaws.5 Certification organizations have already done the homework for you, verifying which offset providers are legitimate and truly making an impact.

Not every forestry carbon offset project out there will be a winner. It’s up to you as a consumer to find offset projects that use solid methodologies to mitigate emissions. It’s also up to you to determine which projects might be unreliable. But don’t fear. Even though the number of carbon offset projects is growing, it’s still possible to tell quality projects from the lemons.

Third-party verification or government contracts help you eliminate the marginal projects. They can also help you tell which projects will be average and which will be stellar. After determining your carbon footprint with an ecological footprint calculator and reducing your emissions where possible, investigate certified projects to find one where you’d like to invest.

Carbon removal projects, when done correctly, provide a holistic solution to the environmental crisis. They have the potential to not only reestablish carbon sinks so desperately needed by the earth to help regulate weather patterns, but also rebuild ecosystems, and help protect endangered animals by restoring habitats. Nature Conservancy offsets’ audit helped highlight that truth, which is helping the entire marketplace become more transparent.


References

1Donofrio, S., Maguire, P., Zwick, S., & Merry, W. (2020). ECOSYSTEM MARKETPLACE INSIGHTS BRIEF Voluntary Carbon and the Post-Pandemic Recovery A Special Climate Week NYC 2020 Installment of Ecosystem Marketplace’s State of Voluntary Carbon Markets 2020 Report. https://wecprotects.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/EM-Voluntary-Carbon-and-Post-Pandemic-Recovery-2020.pdf

2Bloomberg. (2020, December 9). Bloomberg.com. https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-nature-conservancy-carbon-offsets-trees/

3Climate Insights 2020: Overall Trends. (2020). Resources for the Future. https://www.rff.org/publications/reports/climateinsights2020/

4The human cost of disasters: an overview of the last 20 years (2000-2019) – Social Development Network of Latin America and the Caribbean (ReDeSoc). (2019). Cepal.org. https://dds.cepal.org/redesoc/publication?id=5361

5Lee, H., Family, J., Mayer, A., Mba, M., School, H., & Candido, S. (2020). The Future of Carbon Offset Markets | Belfer Center for Science And International Affairs. https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/The%20Future%20of%20Carbon%20Offset%20Markets.pdf

6Environmental Groups Call Biden’s Carbon Bank Plan a “Scam.” (2021, April 22). Modern Farmer. https://modernfarmer.com/2021/04/environmental-groups-call-bidens-carbon-bank-plan-a-scam/

7Ranganathan, J., Waite, R., Searchinger, T., & Zionts, J. (2020). Regenerative Agriculture: Good for Soil Health, but Limited Potential to Mitigate Climate Change. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/insights/regenerative-agriculture-good-soil-health-limited-potential-mitigate-climate-change

8Maslin, M. (2021, January 19). Outdated Carbon Policies Threaten Climate Change Efforts. The National Interest. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/reboot/outdated-carbon-policies-threaten-climate-change-efforts-176463

9The ICROA Code of Best Practice. (2018). Icroa.org. https://www.icroa.org/The-ICROA-Code-of-Best-Practice

10Nature Conservancy investigating its own sales of potentially meaningless carbon credits. (2021). Worldoil.com. https://www.worldoil.com/news/2021/4/5/nature-conservancy-investigating-its-own-sales-of-potentially-meaningless-carbon-credits