VERRA's response to The Guardian
Highland Carbon develops its own carbon offsetting projects in the United Kingdom within the Woodland Carbon Code and Peatland Code. These projects are governed by by NatureScot. They are administered by Scottish Forestry and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature respectively. Projects are independently inspected, verified and validated by the Soil Association and OF&G. These woodland projects sequester CO2 by drawing it down from the atmosphere and locking it up into biomass. The peatland projects avoid emissions from drained wetlands by reflooding these sites and this preventing their biodegradation.
Highland Carbon also sources international projects from a range of frameworks: United Nations -Clean Development Mechanism, BioCarbon Register, Gold Standard and Verra's Verified Carbon Standard (VCS).
A subset of Verra projects exist within a REDD+ framework. REDD+ schemes are recognised by the United Nations and their aims are the Reduction of Degradation and Deforestation, plus enhanced conservation. REDD+ is the leading global framework for the protection of tropical forests.
The remainder of the content below comprises a response from Verra themselves which disputes an article by The Guardian on 18th January 2023 that was critical of its REDD+ tropical carbon offsetting projects.
According to Verra...
The Guardian, based on work with Die Zeit and SourceMaterial has incorrectly claimed that Verra-certified REDD projects are consistently and substantively over-issuing carbon credits.
The claims in this article are based on studies using “synthetic controls” or similar methods that do not account for project-specific factors that cause deforestation. As a result, these studies massively miscalculate the impact of REDD projects.
Verra develops and continually improves methodologies based on the best-available science and technology through rigorous consultations with many academics and experts. This ensures that project baselines used to calculate carbon credits are robust and a credible benchmark against which to measure the impact of REDD projects.
Verra is disappointed to see the publication of an article in the Guardian, developed with Die Zeit and SourceMaterial, incorrectly claiming that REDD projects are consistently and substantively over-issuing carbon credits. Verra worked closely with both publications in the run-up to the publication to explain why this claim is untrue, as it is based on studies that use a “synthetic control” approach or similar methods. We want to share this information with our stakeholders and the wider climate community.
THE ROLE OF VERRA IN SUPPORTING GLOBAL CLIMATE ACTION
Verra has issued over one billion carbon credits since 2009, which have enabled billions of dollars to be channeled to urgent climate action, sustainable development, and the protection and restoration of ecosystems. First and foremost, enabling finance to reach high-quality activities on the ground is the purpose of Verra’s work – more finance enables more climate action, which is vital to keeping us on track for the Paris Agreement goal.
Verra is able to mobilize finance at this scale because we certify projects that avoid, reduce, or remove emissions. These impacts are measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in other greenhouse gasses (CO2e). To ensure that this work is credible and reflects scientific consensus, Verra works with academics and experts globally to create and refine methodologies.
WHY THE STUDIES REACH INCORRECT CONCLUSIONS
Verra welcomes scrutiny of methodologies and contributions from other experts. This is actively encouraged through Verra’s standard, methodology, and project development processes, all of which include expert review and public consultations.
We are aware of the West et al. 2020 and 2023 and Guizar-Coutiño et al. 2022 studies, which compare regional deforestation to project deforestation rates and on which the Guardian and Die Zeit base their claims. Although these studies provide data that is a useful contribution to the wider work on optimizing methodologies for forest carbon projects, they have limited utility for assessing the impact of REDD projects because they do not consider site-specific drivers of deforestation. Specifically, they reach incorrect conclusions because they rely on synthetic controls that do not accurately represent the pre-project conditions in the project area, as the studies’ authors themselves acknowledge.
Synthetic controls compare a project to a control scenario based on a set of variables that impact deforestation, known as covariates, whereas Verra’s approach for REDD projects compares them to real areas. Synthetic controls are used effectively by Verra for certain types of projects, such as Improved Forest Management in North America. However, this approach is not suitable for REDD projects because of the difficulty in finding points that match inside and outside the project area at the start of the project.
REDD projects are not randomly located; local factors that mean a particular area is at acute risk of deforestation are a major determinant for selecting project areas. Verra REDD methodologies are designed to address the variability between the project area and surrounding areas, whereas the synthetic controls used in these studies do not effectively do this. This is why the studies calculated emission reductions different from the number of credits that Verra issued to the projects.
HOW VERRA DEVELOPS CREDIBLE BASELINES
An important part of methodologies is determining the baseline against which climate action should be measured – i.e., predicting what would have happened if a project was not implemented. Baselines are used to determine how many carbon credits a project can issue by comparing the rates of deforestation in a project area against the baseline. To ensure conservativeness of credit issuance, Verra methodologies include procedures for calculation and application of a conservativeness deduction to total estimated emission reductions.
Recently, Verra has made baselines more responsive to unpredictable local changes that impact deforestation rates. For example, under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s deforestation rate went up – this scenario could not have been predicted when the baseline was set. Accordingly, Verra-certified REDD project baselines are now reassessed every 6 years, instead of every 10 years (except in Peru due to government policies).
To further strengthen the accuracy of REDD baselines, Verra is currently working to transition all REDD projects to one methodology. This methodology, which is under development, uses jurisdictionally-allocated baseline data to ensure consistency in emission reductions within a set region.