Carbon Removal Offsets: The Most Ignored Problem In The Carbon Credit Marketplace

By Samson Opanda | Updated on September 16, 2021

Earlier in this decade, the Christian Science Monitor collaborated with the New England Center for Investigative reporting to evaluate the success of offsets in the carbon marketplace…

The findings were shocking.

Companies and individuals at the time had pumped $700 million into carbon offsets that had little chance of delivering promised benefits.2 The investigation noted that most of the procured offsets were projects that were unlikely to be completed, or could have been done without any form of support. Even worse, some of the offsets did not actually remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

However, carbon removal offsets have been proven to be extremely beneficial to the Earth’s atmosphere and ecosystems.

So, what’s the problem with the carbon credit marketplace?

An 8 Billion Trees Graphics of an elephant that represents carbon removal offsets in a meeting room with people tackling the reversal of damage done in the environment.

Carbon Offset, Carbon Removal, and Carbon Removal Offsets

Part of the reason for these poor results is the lack of understanding of various terms often quoted in the carbon marketplace. Three terms, in particular, seem to cause massive confusion, leading to poor carbon offset investment decisions.

The terms are:

  • carbon offset
  • carbon removal
  • carbon removal offsets

Though phonetically related, in practice, the terms are very different.

As will be seen, a switch towards these will save investors in the carbon credit market a reasonable sum of money, besides delivering the benefits they would otherwise not access with conventional carbon offsets.

Back in 2013, when global governments were forming Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) policies, research published that year shared insights on how CDR projects can be deployed to contribute to long-term climate change management. The study noted that climate change players could deploy CDRs as an emission offset strategy or a climate recovery strategy.4

The first option entailed using CDR as an emission reduction option to prevent further accumulation of greenhouse gasses (GHGs). CDRs, in this case, focused on emission offsetting and avoidance but did very little to address historical emissions. The idea here was to ensure that current emissions do not exceed beyond the predetermined limit.

The second option, CDR as a climate recovery strategy, entailed bringing down the current volume of emissions in the atmosphere. This would entail not offsetting or emission avoidance, but rather real and actual carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere.

Over the years, the focus has been on the first strategy, where CDRs only aimed at offsetting and emission avoidance. However, as the reality of climate change sinks in, more and more people prefer the second strategy, which focuses on real CO2 emission reductions.

Unlike the first option, the second option addresses historical emissions and is likely to yield better results.

A better solution would combine the two strategies to deploy CDR as offsets and carbon removal plans. Offsets that follow this criterion are termed carbon removal offsets. This point becomes clear when one understands the difference between carbon offsetting and carbon removal.

What Is The Difference Between Carbon Removal Offsets and Just Carbon Offsetting?

As it may have already emerged, carbon offsetting focuses on compensating for emissions or offsetting them. The projects include, among others, replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, with a goal of preventing more emissions from entering the atmosphere. The focus here is on future emissions.

In contrast, carbon removal deals with historical emissions by removing them directly from the atmosphere.

Though reducing future emissions is a crucial step in limiting the impacts of global warming, removing existing CO2 from the atmosphere actually reverses, or mitigates, them.

An view of a tree with twisted branches in Brazil, with 8 Billion Trees watermark.

The following vital statistics illustrate the distinction between carbon offsetting and carbon removal. Compiled by DG Clima in their review of the current Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the statistics note that most carbon offsets avoid, but do not remove emissions:3

  • 85 percent of projects analyzed in the study had a low likelihood of achieving targeted emission removal.
  • 73 percent of proposed Certified Emission Reduction projects between 2013 and 2021 had a low likelihood of achieving emission reduction targets.
  • A paltry 2 percent of the projects analyzed and 7 percent of the CER proposals showed a high likelihood of achieving emission reduction targets.

These statistics speak to one crucial point: investors should never forget that not all carbon offsets achieve carbon removal.

Most offsets may compensate for emissions elsewhere or even prevent future emissions from occurring, but not all carbon offsets achieve carbon removal in real terms.

CO2 removal offsets address both historical emissions by removing them from the atmosphere, and future emissions through proper offsetting plans. It is for this reason that we recommend this option as the best for truly mitigating climate change.

Why Carbon Removal Offsets are Often Ignored

While the benefits of CO2 removal offsets over conventional carbon offsets are clear, still, few people go for the former for a variety of reasons.

First, most people lack proper information to choose the right offset. Carbon trading and climate change subjects are fairly technical topics. Without proper information, one is likely to get misinformed to the point of making the wrong decision. For example, people who presume that carbon offsets are the same as carbon removal offsets may be surprised to learn how the two projects are different in practice.

Secondly, compared to other offsets such as renewable energy offsets, removal offsets are fairly complex. The complexity of this type of offset stems from the fact that their core objective is to remove emissions.

Such removal requires verification, approval, and proper documentation. That is why most carbon removal projects may be difficult to find in standard carbon trading registries. With the right information and a fair degree of commitment to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, many climate change enthusiasts will go for removal offsets instead of conventional carbon offsets.

Consequences of Ignoring CO2 Removal Offsets

Back in 2007, the Vatican invested in a carbon offset set to make the Church carbon neutral, meaning their emissions come out to net-zero. The plan was for the offsetting company to plant a forest dubbed “The Vatican Forest.” The project never materialized.

As noted by the Christian Monitor, which funded the investigative piece that unearthed this fraud, the Vatican is not the only institution to be duped.2 When conducting the investigation, the journalists noted three other projects that had faced a similar predicament.

A tree-planting project in Panama that declared itself a certified offset program never took off.

A low view image of potted tree saplings in a nursery in Brazil with 8 Billion Trees watermark.
Another carbon offset company in Israel sold offsets to plant new trees…. but the company never planted a single tree. Instead, it showcased forests that it had owned for over 60 years as the offset.

These cases are so common globally that the Australian government has recently launched a crackdown to curb the vice. One thing emerges from these sad tales: in almost all cases, the investors were keen on merely offsetting.

They did not consider real carbon removal. If they did, they would have taken their time to review each offset to confirm if it removed emissions. Such due diligence when procuring offsets would have gone a long way in preventing some of these frauds.

Standard Best Practices for Selecting a Carbon Offset that Removes Carbon Dioxide from the Atmosphere

Granted that not all carbon offset projects lead to actual emission reduction, investors would benefit from a set of best practices that will ensure they select an appropriate offset that can remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Notice the inclusion of the word removal in the wording of carbon removal offsets. It implies just that… the actual removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, leading to a net-zero carbon impact.

Oxford University offers a set of best practices for investors keen on achieving this net-zero impact.1

  •  Adopt High-Quality offsets and revise offsetting strategy in line with current best practices

Here, investors are encouraged to go for carbon offsets that are well accounted for and have a low risk of not removing emissions, reversal, and negative consequences to the environment.

  • Adopt carbon removal offsetting

As has been emphasized throughout this article, investors need to take up offsets that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

  • Adopt long-lived storage

Another often ignored element in carbon offsetting is leakages of the gasses back into the atmosphere, which may make efforts to remove them futile. Good offsets should ensure the removed carbon dioxide does not find its way back into the atmosphere. Such offsets have a longer lifespan.

  • Adopt net-zero aligned offsetting

Offsets should aim at ensuring net zero emissions. The only offsets that can achieve this are offsets that actively remove CO2 emissions. However, there’s more… Offsets that focus on restoring and protecting a wide range of ecosystems are more likely to achieve net-zero compared to others.

Recommended Carbon Removal Offsets

While there are many CO2 removal offsets in the market, reforestation projects are the simplest and easiest to implement, as well as provide the most additional benefits. They also pass the basic criterion of a good carbon removal offset shared by Oxford University.

In that regard, most reforestation projects are well accounted for and documented.

The fact that the projects lead to living trees makes it difficult to fake their impact. The presence or absence of trees on the ground makes it fairly easy to know that the given offset does not conform to the desired expectations. A good example here is the Vatican Forest story shared earlier. Everyone knew the offset was a fraud after finding no forest on the ground.

This visibility of reforestation projects makes them easy to document and account for, in line with recommended principles of carbon removal by Oxford University.

An image of men raking leaved to be used for composting in Brazil, with 8 Billion Tree watermark.

Additionally, reforestation projects actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is a known scientific fact that plants use carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. When trees use up atmospheric carbon dioxide in this manner, they sequester it back into the soil as biomass and organic waste.

By doing so, the carbon dioxide is stored in the soil.

Moreover, trees prevent soil erosion, retaining carbon within the soil. These long-lived carbon storages are one of the recommendations from Oxford University.

Even beyond the carbon sequestering abilities of these projects, properly implemented forestry offsets restore biodiversity, provide habitats for endangered wildlife, and can benefit the surrounding community by providing jobs and food, if fruiting trees are planted.

Lastly, the science around reforestation and its impact are fairly stable, and the benefits of such projects are likely to remain acknowledged within scientific circles for a long time. The fact that offsetting CO2 emissions with trees remains consistent with modern science makes them one of the best carbon offset projects that climate change practitioners can invest in.

Utilizing Carbon Removal Offsets for a Brighter Future

Carbon offsets, carbon removal, and carbon removal offsets are often confused terms in the carbon trading marketplace. The impact of this confusion is so huge that investors in the carbon trade marketplace would benefit from understanding their difference.

While carbon offsets seek to avoid or offset emissions, carbon removal seeks to remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. Carbon offsets that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are termed carbon removal offsets. These offsets combine the benefits of conventional offset programs with the additional merit of actually removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, investors may not pay attention to these offsets due to a lack of proper information and their complexity… but the consequences of failing to consider the actual removal of CO2 from the atmosphere are dire.

Without focusing on actual removal, carbon offset fraud is likely to emerge. Oxford University has shared a set of principles that investors in the carbon trading market should follow to avoid such con projects.

Luckily, reforestation projects meet all of those criteria. What is more, the projects are simple, provide many additional benefits, and are within reach of many investors.

To truly make a lasting impact, investors should consider carbon removal offsets, especially those like reforestation projects, which also restore ecosystems and help wildlife.


References

1Allen , M., Kaya, A., Ben, C., Thomas, H., Cameron, H., Cornor, H., . . . Steve, S. (2020). The Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon. Oxford: University of Oxford. RetrievedAugust 17, 2021 from smithschool.ox.ac.uk: https://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/publications/reports/Oxford-Offsetting-Principles-2020.pdf

2Doug, S. (2010). Buying carbon offsets may ease eco-guilt but not global warming. Retrieved August 17, 2021 from The Christian Science Monitor: https://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/2010/0420/Buying-carbon-offsets-may-ease-eco-guilt-but-not-global-warming

3Dr. Martin , C., Dr. Ralph, O. H., Dr. Jürg, F., Michael , L., Carrie, L. M., Pete , E., & Randall , S.-F. (2016). How additional is the Clean. Berlin: DG Clima. Retrieved August 17, 2020 from https://ec.europa.eu/clima/sites/clima/files/ets/docs/clean_dev_mechanism_en.pdf

4James, M. (2013). Exploring negative territory Carbon dioxide removal and climate policy initiatives. Climatic Change, 135-149. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-012-0684-1