Verra’s Reaction to the Guardian’s Article on Carbon Offsets

Based on collaboration with Die Zeit and Source Material, The Guardian incorrectly claimed that Verra-certified REDD+ projects consistently and significantly over-issue carbon credits.
The claims in this article are based on studies that used “synthetic controls” or similar methods that did not take into account project-specific factors that cause deforestation. As a result, these studies grossly underestimate the impact of REDD+ projects.
Through rigorous consultations with many academics and experts, Verra develops and continuously improves methodologies based on the best available science and technology. This ensures that the project baselines used to calculate carbon credits are robust and provide a credible benchmark for measuring the impact of REDD+ projects.

Verra is disappointed by the publication in the Guardian of an article written in collaboration with Die Zeit and SourceMaterial that incorrectly claims that REDD+ projects consistently and substantively over-issue carbon credits. In the run-up to the publication, Verra worked closely with both publications to explain why this claim is false, as it is based on studies that use a “synthetic control” approach or similar methods. This information will be shared with our stakeholders and the larger climate community.

The impact of Verra on global climate action
Since 2009, Verra has issued over one billion carbon credits, allowing billions of dollars to be channeled into urgent climate action, sustainable development, and ecosystem protection and restoration. First and foremost, the goal of Verra‘s work is to enable finance to reach high-quality activities on the ground – more finance enables more climate action, which is critical to staying on track for the Paris Agreement goal.

Verra is able to raise funds on this scale because we certify projects that avoid, reduce, or eliminate emissions. These effects are measured in tonnes of CO2 or their equivalent in other greenhouse gases (CO2e). Verra collaborates with academics and experts around the world to develop and refine methodologies to ensure that this work is credible and reflects scientific consensus.

Why do the studies drive inaccurate conclusions?
Verra welcomes peer review of methodologies as well as contributions from other experts. Verra’s standard, methodology, and project development processes, all of which include expert review and public consultations, actively encourage this.

We are aware of the West et al. 2020 and 2023 studies, as well as the Guizar-Coutio et al. 2022 studies, which compare regional deforestation to project deforestation rates and are the basis for the Guardian and Die Zeit’s claims. Although these studies contribute useful data to the larger work on optimizing methodologies for forest carbon projects, they are limited in their utility for assessing the impact of REDD+ projects because they do not take into account site-specific drivers of deforestation. They reach incorrect conclusions, in particular, because they rely on synthetic controls that do not accurately represent the pre-project conditions in the project area, as the studies’ authors admit.

Synthetic controls compare a project to a control scenario based on a set of covariates that influence deforestation, whereas Verra’s approach for REDD+ projects compares them to real areas. Verra employs synthetic controls effectively in certain types of projects, such as Improved Forest Management in North America. However, because of the difficulty in finding points that match inside and outside the project area at the start of the project, this approach is not suitable for REDD+ projects.

Local factors that indicate a particular area is at high risk of deforestation are a major determinant in selecting project areas for REDD+ projects. Verra REDD+ methodologies are intended to address variability between the project area and surrounding areas, whereas the synthetic controls used in these studies do not. This is why the studies calculated emission reductions that differed from the number of credits issued to the projects by Verra.

How Verra creates trustworthy baselines
A critical component of methodologies is determining the baseline against which climate action should be measured – that is, predicting what would have happened if a project had not been implemented. By comparing the rates of deforestation in a project area to the baseline, baselines are used to determine how many carbon credits a project can issue. Verra methodologies include procedures for calculating and applying a conservativeness deduction to total estimated emission reductions to ensure credit issuance is conservative.

Verra has recently made baselines more responsive to unpredictability in local changes that affect deforestation rates. For example, under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s deforestation rate increased, which could not have been predicted when the baseline was established. As a result, Verra-certified REDD+ project baselines are now reassessed every six years rather than every ten years (except in Peru due to government policies).

Verra is currently working to transition all REDD+ projects to a single methodology in order to improve the accuracy of REDD+ baselines. This under-development methodology employs jurisdictionally-allocated baseline data to ensure consistency in emission reductions within a given region.

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