The Problem with Verified Carbon Offsets In 2023 vs Carbon Removal Projects

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | January 20, 2023

Unbalanced scale showing verified carbon offsets on one side vs carbon removal projects on the other, which have a bigger impact.

The carbon offset market is booming, but growing concerns highlight the fact that many of the programs springing up overnight in the voluntary marketplace ignore the most effective carbon removal operations.

Every day, new companies and organizations announce their sustainability initiatives that are designed to reduce the greenhouses gases being pumped into the atmosphere, but the fact is that offsets alone do little create the real solutions the planet needs right now.

Does ‘verified’ really mean that standards and regulations are in place to ensure that carbon emissions are actually being removed, or are these claims without measurable merit?

Knowing the difference between offset standards is the first step in understanding how these plans work in 2023… and why there is a huge difference between carbon removal offset programs that focus on long term elimination of CO2, and rosy ‘net zero’ projections created through certain voluntary offset projects and schemes that simply move emissions from one area to another.

Carbon Marketplace Definition: How Offset Programs Are Classified

Essentially, the carbon offsets marketplace operates and classifies projects under compliance schemes (those that are compelled by mandatory carbon reduction rules, such as the EU’s emissions trading scheme) and those that are voluntary.

Compliance schemes operate on guidelines developed within national and international reduction plans. Offsets are used to essentially ‘pay’ someone else, somewhere else, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so that a company or organization can keep on doing what it has always done.

What Is the Voluntary Carbon Market?

Carbon dioxide is a key component in the atmosphere, necessary for plant life (as we all learned in grade school). But, the high levels that have been generated over the past hundred years, combined with the wanton destruction of massive carbon sinks that exist naturally (areas like the rainforests that remove CO2 from the air) have caused these amounts to skyrocket.

In an attempt to regulate and reduce carbon emissions, during the mid-1990’s, some basic actions began to take place. In 1996, the Environmental Resources Trust was established, and later rebranded as the American Carbon Registry, which marked a signal beginning to the voluntary carbon marketplace.

The Role of the Voluntary Market

The voluntary market operates outside specific regulatory guidelines, and enables anyone (businesses, organizations and individuals) to purchase offsets.

This is an excellent opportunity, because it allows environmentally conscious companies and organizations to do something to mitigate the impact they are having on the planet. Other reasons the voluntary market is good for the world include:

  • Enables and encourages innovation—free markets spur creativity and competition
  • Delivers an equitable solution—wealthier and less developed countries are able to participate in relation to abilities
  • Consumer goodwill—the voluntary nature allows companies to compete for the goodwill of buyers

It is this voluntary market that has spurred the phenomenal growth and popularity of carbon offset providers, but the voluntary market has also made it possible for carbon removal programs (which have the most impact on the environment) to become obscured, because of the varying standards used. Although there are considerably more verification bodies and registries, we’ll examine some of the most widely accepted, which include:

Gold Standard (GS)

In response to the Paris Agreement (an international agreement on climate change, adopted in 2015), the Gold Standard was formed to act as both a carbon credit registry and a voluntary marketplace. The methods used to verify projects are conducted under third party validation bodies, and initially only afforestation projects were approved.

Verra, Formerly the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) Which Uses Verified Carbon Units (VCUs)

This non-profit registry acts to verify emission reduction projects under a fairly rigorous set of regulations, including a minimum “permanence” commitment of 20 years. The various methodologies used to classify projects have very stringent guidelines for reforestation programs, but less for afforestation projects.

Using third-party validation bodies, the idea is to ensure that carbon credits being verified are actually working, but Verra does allow the combination of multiple projects into a single one, mirroring the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which has suffered from a number of problems.

American Carbon Registry (ACR)

This non-profit registry has stricter requirements, and also oversees the California Air Resources Board compliance market, using Emission Reduction Tons as the tradable unit. The crediting period is twice as long as Verra, at 40 years, for afforestation and reforestation plans, but only 10 years for REDD projects.

Climate Action Reserve (CAR)

The Climate Action Reserve registry also acts as the offset registry for California’s Cap and Trade program, which has faced legal challenges over leakage (indirect emissions). Other issues include overestimation of offset credits, and baseline emissions.

Understanding the role of the voluntary market, and how it verifies and validates offset projects is at the heart of the problem between ‘verified’ carbon offsets and carbon removal offsets.

Identifying the Factors Involved in Offset Standards for Emissions Trading

Part of the reason that offsets face criticism is the fact that the standards used to verify carbon offsets don’t really support the long-term carbon removal needed to impact the environment. Although the intent is good in theory… in practice, it falls short of what’s needed.

By examining the following standards, we can identify how they lack the enduring quality controls needed.

Additionality and Baselines

Additionality and baselines are fundamental to any offset program, and are used to identify the supply of ‘credits’ that can be attained. Essentially, the concept is that a baseline is established, and then any intervention that occurs can compare the results with the baseline to measure the impact.

In offset plans, additionality refers the amount of carbon emissions a project is able to reduce, which would not have happened without the offset project’s activity. But, there are issues…

Since almost all offset plans have followed the lead of the CDM, each plan mirrors the same flaws.

The Greenhouse Gas Institute explained3 other than reforestation efforts that actually remove carbon, additionality is very difficult to apply. Indeed, in many cases it is based on ‘predictions,’ and the entire concept relies on comparing an activity with a simultaneous one (which is rarely possible).

The two approaches to additionality testing are:

  • Project based—testing the project on a case to case basis, using various factors.
  • Performance standards—drafted based on emissions rates, but are often too broad.

However, the science behind carbon removal offsets, when based on replacing original vegetation, can be measured. One tree (depending on species) is able to remove a specific amount of carbon dioxide throughout its lifespan.

For example, the Earth-Friendly Web Usage Carbon Offset program will plant 27 trees which would remove 2.6 tons of your carbon emissions because of surfing the Internet.

Think about it like this:

  • An area of the rainforest existed for hundreds of years
  • Humans cleared the land, burning and destroying the trees that had stored CO2 (aka a Carbon Sink)
  • The burning and clearing released more carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere
  • By replacing and restoring that forest area, the amount of CO2 can be removed

In addition to the challenges that are inherent in establishing additionality, many of the reforestation requirements are more obstructive than those for afforestation (creating a forest where one never existed).

Reforestation offers the best carbon removal potential by replacing the forests nature intended should already be here.

5 Types of Offset Programs

Typically, offset programs fall into five categories, but these can shift, depending on the region and initiative verifying the offset plan.

Methane Capture

The global warming potential of methane gas, which is emitted by landfills, in wastewater treatment, by agriculture (livestock), coal mining activities, and other systems, is much greater than carbon dioxide, about 20 times higher. But, the amount of methane generated is much less.

Both gases need controlled, but with methane capture, the opportunity to convert the gas into energy is being explored.

Industrial and GHG Destruction/Avoidance

Limiting industrial gases (or developing ways to destroy them) is a very good idea, but does little to address the higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Offsets that are generated by these projects have been criticized because they offer monetary incentives for destroying a gas, that many claim, should never have been produced in the first place.

Energy Efficiency Advancements

Energy efficiency advancements focus on innovations that reduce conventional technology’s use of traditional sources of energy. For example, changing an automobile engine from a carburetor to a computerized fuel injection system, which maximizes fuel efficiency. (Almost all new cars have this.)

Renewable Energy Projects

Renewable energy offsets are generated when hydro, solar, wind, and other green energy sources are used to replace reliance on fossil fuels.

Forestry: Biological Sequestration

Reforestation projects actually remove carbon because they restore the natural processes the planet has in place to clean the air. Although afforestation projects can accomplish the same thing, these programs present a number of issues to conscientious environmentalism.

For example, company x decides to plant a forest where there has always been a meadow. They choose trees according to their ability to sequester carbon and carry out a massive planting operation. Within a few years, the trees are not thriving and the land has been sold to accommodate another venture.

What happened to the offsets?

Well, they never existed. This is one of the reasons afforestation projects have come under intense scrutiny over the past few years.

Eligible Projects

There are typically three generalized types of forest carbon projects that can apply for registry:

  • Afforestation, Reforestation, and Revegetation (ARR): The guidelines for the sorts of programs vary widely (see below), but in general include those that are designed to increase carbon sequestration by creating, growing or reestablishing plant cover by planting trees (and other native brush, etc.). Eligible projects however, are usually subjected to certain restrictions involving timber management and eventual clearing of land.
  • Improved forest Management (IFM): These projects involve agreements that reduce logging practices by extending the age of the trees being cut.
  • Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and degradation (REDD): These projects have faces heightened criticisms because they deliver carbon credits for stopping planned and unsanctioned deforestation or degradation of lands. In fact, there have been a number of instances where REDD projects were used to subsidize coal plants, which used the credits to claim compliance with the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

However, when audits were performed, over three quarters (75%) of the offsets had no impact at all.

These challenges to the carbon crediting and offset market spurred more stringent applications of the requirements for achieving a ‘verified’ offset, leading to the establishment of more registries and auditors.

Some of the most widely recognized however, still base many of their standards on the same guidelines that led to these early failures.

Problems With Current Offset Programs

One of the key problems with current offset program standards is that long term carbon removal is absent. In 2019, a science-based paper claimed1 that the world had plenty of room to add nearly a billion hectares of trees, which would remove 200 billion tons of carbon, with reforestation as the driver.

This wide scale forestation also helps protect wildlife, delivers resources to the local communities, and ensures thriving biodiversity.

But, the paper was criticized as overestimating the carbon removed from the atmosphere, ignoring various challenges to the plan, and glossing over the challenges associated with rebuilding and reestablishing forests around the world.

In fact, these are just some of the reasons that reforestation projects fail, and why there are only a few organizations even attempting them.

Benefits and Challenges to Reforestation Carbon Removal Projects

James Temple recently explained in an article for Technology Review, “There are limited options for large-scale carbon removal. These include direct air capture, the use of various minerals that bind with CO2, reforestation efforts, and what’s known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (using crops as fuel but capturing any emissions released when they’re combusted). None of these options can be easily scaled up. Direct air capture is still prohibitively expensive and energy intensive. Using crops for fuel means snatching land from other uses, such as growing food for a swelling population.”2

This means, reforestation is the only viable option at this point, and the lack of ‘scalable’ potential is one of the reasons Verra and other standards aren’t making workable methodologies to accomplish it.

But the fact remains that it can work… when done correctly.

How Carbon Removal Offsets Work for the Planet

When carbon removal projects are executed properly, the planet actually benefits. There is a clear need to reestablish the carbon sinks that existed around the world for millennia before industry made sweeping changes to the landscape.

By replanting only native species, collecting native seeds, and understanding the current and previous ecosystem, planters can restore the land to its original healthy biodiversity.

Only this sort of reforestation program is orchestrated for the long haul, in order to be effective for the planet. They aren’t simply moving carbon emissions around every 20 years, they are building the habitats and ecosystems that the world has lost, in order to erase emissions that are being generated every day.

The problem with verified carbon offsets, versus carbon removal projects can be overcome, but it requires the implementation of better, more workable standards that don’t provide a band-aid on the issues facing the world… but provide a cure.

Learn More About Carbon Offsetting Here:


1Bastin, Jean-Francios; Finegold, Yelena; et. Al, Science, 5 Jul 2019, Vol 365, Issue 6448, pp. 76-79, DOI: 10.1126/science.aax0848

2Temple, James. “Carbon Removal Hype Is Becoming a Dangerous Distraction” Technology Review. 8 July 2021.

3Gillenwater, Michael. What Is Additionality? Part 1: A Longstanding problem. Greenhouse Gas Management Institute. Version 03. January 2021.