How to Avoid Scams and Pick Verified Carbon Offsets (Guide)

By Jazmin Murphy | Updated on September 15, 2021

Although carbon marketplaces have been in place for several years, these systems are still relatively new and it can be difficult to know how to avoid scams and determine which ones are verified carbon offsets. Many individuals and businesses are still learning the ins and outs of how to offset their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Verified carbon offsets have the great potential to cleanse the atmosphere of harmful GHGs, but also restore ecosystems, provide new habitats, and revive local communities. Unfortunately, some are taking advantage of this new market and offering unverified or illegitimate carbon offsets that don’t actually do what they say…

Part of this learning curve is determining which criteria you’ll use to choosing one of the best carbon offset providers and carbon removal programs. With the proper standards and expectations, you and your company can confidently mitigate your environmental impact.

Keep reading to find out how to do so, while avoiding any scams.

An 8 Billion Trees graphic with trees and a coin, telling viewers to beware of carbon offset scams.

How To Avoid Offset Scams and Choose Verified Carbon Offsets

It’s best not to assume that a tree planting offset project will effectively minimize your carbon footprint. Instead, follow the steps in this guide and ask these questions (and have an idea of your desired answers) to determine if a specific program is right for you.

Step 1. Ask What Types of Carbon Removal Offset Projects They Have Available

The variability of an organization’s carbon offset projects is critical. The organization you’re considering might only have a handful of offsetting alternatives for buyers to clean up their emitted gases, or they might offer too many to choose from.

In either case, it’s not ideal for there to only be one type of project. Here’s a list of carbon offset categories you should be able to select from, ranked by the Center for Global Development (CGD):1

  • Biological sequestration: One of the most common types of carbon offset programs you’ll see in this category is forestry programs, including reforestation and afforestation. Reforestation is the practice of foresting a stretch of land that has either lost the original forest habitat or experienced severe degradation. Afforestation involves planting new trees where there was not previously a forest, thereby creating a new one. Other examples include eco-friendly crop rotation, and fighting deforestation.

Note: Brazil’s deforestation record reached a 10-year peak in 2018. In the following years, the rates of forest loss in the Amazon rainforest increased by 34 percent in 2019 and 37 percent in 2020.3,4 It’s one of the most important carbon sinks (habitat types or environmental elements that capture and store carbon dioxide) globally. Yet, it’s rapidly disappearing before our eyes.

Note: Protecting endangered old growth forests and conducting reforestation that replaces previously existing, diverse ecosystems provide the best carbon removal offset strategies.

  • Renewable energy: You’re probably familiar with hydropower, wind energy, and solar power. These are among the most well-known types of renewable energy – but they’re far from the only options. Projects in this category might support initiatives to develop nuclear energy innovation or otherwise reduce emissions from fossil fuels.
  • Energy efficiency: This may be the broadest category. There are so many ways to improve the efficiency of an individual’s and society’s energy consumption. For example, the Climate Plus Green Building Program addresses unsustainable construction practices – accounting for 39 percent of global energy emissions – head-on, ultimately creating a net-positive environmental result.9

Note: These projects are particularly advantageous, as they lead to cost reductions at the same time.

  • Reduction of non-CO2 gas emissions: Let’s face it. Carbon dioxide is not the only gas harming Earth’s atmosphere. Methane is another gas of critical concern, as is the reduction of chlorofluorocarbons and nitrous oxide (N2O). These other GHGs can trap more heat in the atmosphere, so projects that work beyond CO2 are crucial to the climate fight.

There’s no “right” way to choose which project is best for you or your company. Still, you can use some tricks to make the choice easier.

For instance, you might want to support a project like the Climate Plus Green Building Program if you run a construction business. That way, your offsets are directly related to your industry, and the mitigation applies to your day-to-day activities.

Individuals might choose their desired projects a bit differently. Generally, afforestation projects like that which protects Brazil’s forests are excellent choices, as they provide shelter and food for wildlife while increasing nature’s ability to store and sequester carbon dioxide. Plus, rural inhabitants and communities can also benefit from these projects.

Step 2. Check that the Projects Are Verified by a Third-Party

Since many people are afraid that carbon offsets are scams or a form of “green-washing,” verification is essential to a successful project and avoiding offset scams. Carbon offset projects can be verified in many ways. The most crucial detail to note in your chosen offsetting program’s verification process is that the organization uses a third party.

For example, look at The American Carbon Registry (ACR) Validation and Verification Standard. This requires “independent third-party validation and verification of all carbon offset projects.”2 By having a third-party professional manage this task, the project ensures transparency with a neutral, objective assessment of its claimed GHG emission reductions or removals.

During verification, the analyst will use an approved method and set of criteria to:

  • Report the GHG baseline (how much GHGs the company emits without mitigation)
  • Document significant changes to project activities since the most recent verification
  • Record significant changes in reduced or removed emissions and baseline GHGs

After collecting these details and other data points, the verifying party can also evaluate the project’s adherence to the reduction or removal plans and determine a degree of confidence in the claimed mitigations.

ACR and other organizations provide prospective carbon credit buyers with lists of approved validation and verification bodies, or VVBs.6 You can use these resources to cross-reference the verification body that works with your chosen carbon offset project.

While you’re at it, make sure the VVB complies with the International Organization for Standardization, particularly ISO 14064-3:2019 and ISO 14065:2020. These standards contain general and sector-specific guidance for impartial validation and verification activities.6

Step 3. Check that the Projects are Backed by Solid Science

No matter the project or its method, carbon offsetting is a phenomenon rooted in science. The entire concept is dependent on the science behind the carbon cycle and climate change. Because of this, it is crucial for a project to have scientific backing that ensures the intended result will happen, and will help the earth.

Reforestation is one of the most widespread offsetting methods, but some planting projects use potentially invasive species in habitats where they don’t belong. These non-native species can wreak havoc on the local ecosystem. Others have planted species that have low survival rates due to poor planning and lack of ecological knowledge. These efforts won’t have nearly the same positive impact if the wrong species are planted.

If there’s no biologist to be found on the leadership team, that may be a red flag. Any project that aims to heal the planet should have the whole ecosystem in mind, not just the potential amount of carbon dioxide sequestered. With the professional know-how, carbon offset companies can make well-informed, science-based decisions that lead to better outcomes.

Step 4. Look for Evidence of Success

You can buy into a carbon offset project that claims to install solar panels on warehouses, but how do you know they actually installed them? Don’t just take their word for it, have a look for yourself!

An 8 Billion Trees illustration of a man hiding behind a fake tree, trying to sell carbon offsets, while trees are being bulldozed behind him.

This doesn’t mean to just look up the project on Google Earth to see the satellite image— although you could. But there are other things to look out for: the company should have a regularly updated website, to start. Evidence of a truly impactful program might include images, newsletters, blogs, or annual reports. You should be able to have your questions answered with a detailed FAQ section, and easy-to-find contact information if you’d like to get in contact.

If they are current with their updates, they should also have social media. Check their Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for the latest updates and evidence of success. If it has been a few years since the last update was shared, it might be wise to either inquire with the organization directly or consider another option.

Step 5. Addressing Additionality and Uncertainty

Above all, you must be certain that your chosen offsetting project is removing harmful GHGs from the atmosphere. In other words, you need to be sure the program provides “additionality.” This is often determined through a carbon offset verification or certification company.5

Additionality is the amount of carbon dioxide the project prevents from entering the atmosphere. Organizations can accomplish this in two ways:

  • Preventing GHGs from entering the atmosphere to begin with.
  • Capture GHGs that are already in the atmosphere.

The CGD states, “A project is additional if and only if there are fewer GHGs in the atmosphere than there would have been had no offsetting activity taken place.”1

Well, this seems pretty easy, right? After all, you’re shopping for a carbon offsetting project – it must remove GHGs one way or another. This may be true; however, here enters the concept of uncertainty. You can only be so sure of how much carbon dioxide you’ve prevented from being released or taken out of the equation.

Certainty depends on the accuracy of the monitoring, measurement, and estimations. It also depends on the specific difficulties the analysts encounter. For instance, the CGD lists a few challenges that can contribute to uncertainty:

  • Varying participation incentives: Some businesses might have stronger profit incentives to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. Company mandates might also obligate the firm to mitigate its GHGs. In these cases, the purchased offsets could no longer be recognized as “additional” because the emissions would have been addressed with or without the offset project, thanks to existing incentives.
  • Inflating emissions savings: Unfortunately, not all businesses that enroll in carbon offsetting programs do so with the best intentions. Some inflate their alleged emissions “savings” by increasing their released GHGs. Both numbers are enhanced, allowing the company to appear as if they’ve prevented more emissions than they have. It’s tricky to account for this in verification analyses.
  • Leakage: “Leakage” refers to the shifting of GHG emissions from one sector to another. For example, a company might appear to have removed CO2 through its offsets but increased its emissions in another sector. This is one of the most notable points of concern in the global carbon marketplace. It’s a challenging factor to consider in analyses.

Of course, you’ll want to consider all these possibilities equally and ask the project officials about their approach to managing the uncertainty. However, notice that the first two concerns lie with the participants, while the final issue, leakage, falls under the project’s responsibility. This is why you’ll want to ask about the project’s approach to managing leakage to ensure they have the lowest possible level of uncertainty.

Step 6. Learn Some Nuances of Choosing an Afforestation Project

It’s no secret that people doubt the short-term advantages of tree-planting projects and similar initiatives. Trees are long-lived organisms – they take a while to mature. It’s easy to think that you won’t see the forest’s full benefits for a long while. However, even young trees can sequester carbon dioxide.

Plus, a recent research publication states that “global tree restoration [is] one of the most effective carbon drawdown solutions to date.”7

So, how do you choose the right afforestation program? Let’s look at one example to help guide your expectations of what makes a great project.

First, you must be sure that the project officials are mindful about where they initiate planting activities. For example, Wes Swaffar of American Forests told Yale Environment 360, “If we plant the right trees in the right places and manage them in the right way, we can accomplish a lot… trees [provide] many benefits to people, like improving health and creating [forestry-related] job opportunities.”8

Tree saplings starting to sprout through dark soil at a Brazil nursery, for an 8 Billion Trees restoration project.

To ensure the trees are planted in “the right places,” the program’s location selection process should look something like this:

  • Identifying the habitats in need: Not all ecosystems need trees. In fact, adding trees can do more harm than good in some areas. To avoid any unintended damage, the project should assess the habitat, looking for two specific details: There should be at least 1,500 plant species present in the area and the area should have lost a minimum of 70 percent of its original vegetation.
  • Researching forest restoration and sequestering capacity: The best afforestation projects are informed by ongoing research and monitoring. This Amazon Rainforest planting project in Brazil relies on studies into the Cerrado biome, an area containing several landscape types, including forest and savanna formations, natural grasslands, large-scale plantations and cattle ranches, and degraded areas. This knowledge determines the type of planting projects required. Since this project takes place where the two most biodiverse areas of Brazil merge, it supports both biomes.
  • Collaborations for added benefits: A critical aspect of the Brazil afforestation efforts is improving the quality of life for local wildlife. For example, the Brazil tree-planting operations take place alongside rescue and conservation programs led by the Tocantins Fauna Center. The Center also provides education to empower local communities in fighting illegal wildlife trafficking.

Ultimately, the afforestation project’s goal should be to return the habitat to exactly what it was before human destruction – not to plant trees just for the sake of it.

How to Use Verified Carbon Offsets to Help the Planet

Choosing a carbon offset project is quite challenging. You have lots to consider, and the criteria may differ slightly, depending on whether you’re buying into the carbon marketplace on behalf of your business or yourself.

The most important factors to consider are what types of carbon offsets the organization has available and how they’re verified. It’s also best that your chosen program provides educational resources to ensure enduring effectiveness and meaningful change.

Of the many offsetting alternatives available, your best bet is a multifaceted afforestation project. This program goes beyond planting trees, empowering local communities via educational activities, and giving wildlife a fighting chance.

To minimize your environmental impact and contribute to meaningful ecological change, use an ecological footprint calculator to calculate your carbon footprint and consider a tree planting carbon offset program as an accessible, safe option.


References

1Duggan, J., Lu, J., & Navis, K. (n.d.). Ranking carbon offsets: A primer for organizational buyers. Center for Global Development. Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://www.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/Ranking-Carbon-Offsets-A-Primer-for-Organizational-Buyers.pdf

2American Carbon Registry. (n.d.). ACR validation and verification standard — American carbon registry. Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://americancarbonregistry.org/carbon-accounting/standards-methodologies/acr-validation-and-verification-standard-1

3Mongabay.com. (2018, November 29). Amazon deforestation at highest level in 10 years, says Brazil. Mongabay Environmental News. Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://news.mongabay.com/2018/11/amazon-deforestation-at-highest-level-in-10-years-says-brazil/

4Silva Junior, C. H., Pessôa, A. C., Carvalho, N. S., Reis, J. B., Anderson, L. O., & Aragão, L. E. (2020). The Brazilian Amazon deforestation rate in 2020 is the greatest of the decade. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 5(2), 144-145. Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-01368-x

5Verra. (n.d.). Validation & verification. Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://verra.org/project/vcs-program/validation-verification/

6International Organization for Standardization. (2019, April). ISO 14065:2020. Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://www.iso.org/standard/74257.html

7Bastin, J. F., Finegold, Y., Garcia, C., Mollicone, D., Rezende, M., Routh, D., Zohner, C. M., & Crowther, T. W. (2019, July 5). The global tree restoration potential. Science. Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/76

8Welz, A. (2021, April 8). Are huge tree planting projects more hype than solution? Yale E360. Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://e360.yale.edu/features/are-huge-tree-planting-projects-more-hype-than-solution

9Why The Building Sector? – Architecture 2030. (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2021, from https://architecture2030.org/buildings_problem_why/