By Chris Lang
Shell promises drivers in Denmark that they can become “CO2 neutral” when they buy carbon offsets with the petrol on sale in Shell’s petrol stations. Recently, three investigative journalists with the Danish newspaper Politiken spoke to a series of experts who point out that customers cannot trust Shell’s forest conservation promises. Morten Skjoldager, Carl Emil Arnfred, and Sebastian Stryhn Kjeldtoft conclude that for the climate, buying Shell’s REDD offsets can be worse than doing nothing.
Shell gives drivers the option of paying about 2 US cents per litre when they buy petrol to offset their emissions. Shell buys carbon offsets from two REDD projects: Katingan Mentaya in Indonesia; and Cordillera Azul in Peru.
REDD-Monitor has written three posts about these REDD projects:
Last year, Shell launched a plan to spend US$300 million on natural climate solutions over three years. The plan is to offset 2-3% of Shell’s total CO2 emissions.
Shell is offering “carbon neutral driving” to motorists in the Netherlands, Denmark, the UK, and Canada.
The problem is that Shell gives the impression that the carbon offsets result in “carbon neutral driving”. But the best case scenario is a zero sum game: emissions from driving in Denmark are equal to avoided emissions from forest conservation in Indonesia and Peru. The reality is that it’s impossible to say whether the emissions in Denmark are equal to avoided emissions in Indonesia and Peru, or even whether any emissions have been avoided.
At a time when we urgently need to dramatically reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels, Shell’s REDD offsets are just greenwash. Once again, REDD is a dangerous distraction from the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
On 31 October 2020, Politiken published three articles by Skjoldager, Arnfred, and Kjeldtoft about Shell’s offsets. The articles are part of what looks like a fascinating series of articles about climate change, offsetting, fraud, and claims of carbon neutrality. (Unfortunately, many of the articles are behind a paywall and in Danish. The following is based on a Google translation.)
Politiken‘s journalists spoke to Danish and international forest experts and economists. They consider the projects to be so uncertain that motorists in Denmark risk being misled.
Robert Fletcher, an associate professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, told Politiken that,
“It is simply wrong to use this scheme to offset CO2 emissions from motorists.”
The researchers that Politiken spoke to emphasised that protecting forests is important, but pointed out carbon offsetting is not the solution.
Professor Jens Friis Lund from the University of Copenhagen said that,
“In the bigger picture, the idea of climate compensation is deeply problematic. We are in a situation where all countries and all sectors must reduce if we are to preserve the chance of limiting global warming to below two degrees.”
The experts’ criticisms fall under two main categories: leakage and additionality – problems that REDD has always faced. Leakage refers to the fact that while deforestation might be avoided in one place, forests in another area continue to be cleared. Additionality refers to the impossibility of predicting what would have happened in the absence of the REDD project.
Professor Ole Mertz and PhD fellow Scott Ford from the Department of Geosciences and Nature Management at the University of Copenhagen have studied deforestation in both projects using satellite images. They also looked at a buffer zone of several kilometres around the projects. In both cases deforestation has increased in the areas around the REDD projects, which could be a sign of leakage.
Mertz and Ford found that since 2000, deforestation has been increasing around the Cordillera Azul national park in Peru. Meanwhile there has been no deforestation inside the national park, either before or after the REDD project started.
Mertz told Politiken that,
“It could indicate that the project has really had no effect at all, as the historical trends have simply continued. In other words, one can doubt whether Shell has received value for their CO2 credits. It seems that the atmosphere has not received fewer emissions in Peru to offset Shell’s emissions.”
In Indonesia, satellite images show that deforestation has increased more in the area around the project than inside the REDD project area.
In addition to the increased deforestation around the project area, in 2016, major forest fires broke out inside the project area. Mertz said,
“When suddenly 6% of the project area is almost completely cleared due to a fire in one year, then it is actually a large area. When it is also on peat soil, where not only the trees burn, it is significant.”
“There is probably much to suggest that there has been no reduction in CO2 emissions that could compensate for emissions that have taken place in Denmark.”
Mertz added that,
“The problem with the project is that they cannot document that the CO2 that we emit is actually stored. Therefore, the net result is unfortunately that you end up emitting more CO2 rather than having zero emissions.”
REDD relies on creating a counterfactual baseline based on what would happen in the absence of the project. The project developers’ assumption is that large areas of the forest would be destroyed without the sale of carbon offsets to fund the project. But it’s impossible to verify a counterfactual baseline, for the simple reason that the project did go ahead. The baseline is a story made up by consultants hired by the project developer.
The experts read the hundreds of pages of project documents. They told Skjoldager, Arnfred, and Kjeldtoft that there is no evidence at all that the forests would have been cleared if the areas were not REDD projects.
The Cordillera Azul REDD project in Peru was already a national park before the REDD project started. Robert Fletcher, at Wageningen University, compared REDD to “grabbing forests and demanding a ransom to keep them alive”. In the case of the Cordillera Azul REDD project, Fletcher said,
“The fact that this was already a national park and that protection started long before the payment for climate compensation was made makes this scheme even more ridiculous.”
The project documents reveal that the project developers did not even consider the option that the government might protect the national park.
Alain Karsenty, head of research at the Centre for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD), told Politiken that, “It’s really crazy to rely on such hypothetical scenarios when solving such a serious problem.”
“The REDD+ projects cannot guarantee full compensation,” Karsenty added.
Karsenty told Politiken that,
“The hypothesis is that the Peruvian government will not adequately fund the national park without the project to prevent intrusion, settlement and clearing. This is possible, but the opposite is not unlikely.”
The Cordillera Azul REDD project has so far generated more than 25 million carbon credits – simply because the forest has not been felled. That’s double the total yearly CO2 emissions from cars in Denmark.
William Lock is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex. His research includes investigating the role of private organisations in conservation in Peru. He commented that,
“Based on my experience with REDD+ projects in Peru, I do not believe that forest conservation projects can neutralise the use of fossil fuels. CO2-neutral fossil fuels are a logical inconsistency, and by using the term and suggesting that motorists can become CO2-neutral, Shell is greenwashing on a monumental scale.”
Shell’s and Verra’s responses
Politiken presented the experts’ research to Shell. In a written response Shell’s spokeswoman Sally Donaldson said, “We stand by the robustness of our CO2 compensation programme.” She added that, “We maintain that the Danish motorists’ CO2 emissions will be fully compensated through the projects.”
Politiken asked Shell why the company doesn’t just donate money for forest protection, without creating carbon credits and thus allowing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution to continue. Shell referred to projects in the UK and the Netherlands, but both of these are part of Shell’s offsetting plans.
Politiken also presented the researcher’s findings to Verra. Both projects are registered under Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard. In a written response, Verra did not comment on the Cordillera Azul project, but stated that it does not believe that the fires in the Katingan project “threaten the environmental integrity of the carbon credits”.
VCS Communications Manager Anne Thiel told Politiken that,
“In general, we believe that projects registered in the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) deliver reliable emission reductions due to the robust methods they follow.”
Lessons from Oddar Meanchey
But Verra’s claims of “reliable emission reductions” are not really reassuring, as the case of the Oddar Meanchey REDD project in Cambodia reveals. The project was registered under the Verified Carbon Standard in 2013. In January 2018, Virgin Atlantic stopped buying carbon credits from the Oddar Meanchey REDD project. The problem, as a December 2017 report by Fern pointed out was that “the forest is being destroyed, not protected”.
REDD-Monitor has reported on the destruction of the forests inside the Oddar Meanchey REDD project since 2013, based on reports in the Cambodian media. A series of photographs taken in March 2012, reveal the extent of the deforestation:
After Virgin Atlantic stopped buying carbon credits from the Oddar Meanchey REDD project, Verra put out a statement claiming that “REDD+ is a proven, efficient and effective way to achieve emission reductions”.
In 2019, ProPublica hired a satellite imagery analysis firm, Descartes Labs, to determine how much forest in the 13 community forests of the Oddar Meanchey REDD project actually remained.
According to project documents the project area was 88% covered in forest when the project started in 2008. Descartes Labs found that by 2017 only 46% of the forest in the project area remained. One of the community forests, Angdoung Bor, was 90% forest in 2008. By 2017, Descartes Labs found that the forest had entirely gone.
The most recent report by Verra’s auditors, who are supposed to monitor what is happening on the ground, is dated 2013.
PHOTO Credit: Politiken.