Matthew D. Potts, PhD

Chief Science Officer

On January 18, The Guardian, in partnership with Die Zeit and Source Material, published an article: “Revealed: more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by biggest provider are worthless.” This article details research into tropical forest carbon credits (REDD+ credits), one of the largest segments of the current carbon offset market. The reporting claims that more than 90 percent of these specific types of offsets are “‘phantom credits’ and do not represent genuine carbon reductions.”

The Carbon Direct team has analyzed this report and its source material. The Guardian’s findings are comparable to our analysis of REDD+ projects over the last several years. We have long detailed challenges in the voluntary carbon market and we emphasize to our clients the particular challenges in REDD+ credits.

Our experience quantifying REDD+ credits is directionally similar to that cited by The Guardian. Carbon Direct has reviewed hundreds of projects on behalf of our clients and witnessed issues consistent with The Guardian’s reporting. The Guardian’s reporting does omit some nuances. The specific claim that “94 percent” of REDD+ credits are ‘junk’ ignores uncertainty in the models and focuses on a single number.

Our own work reviewing REDD+ projects suggests a slightly higher, but still unacceptably low, success rate. Carbon Direct combines the type of data-rich analysis conducted for The Guardian report with multi-faceted, project-specific analysis. Our focus on project-level information and diligence provides important context that is missing in large studies like the ones reported on by The Guardian —for example, issues around environmental justice and co-benefits for biodiversity.

While there are differences in our approaches, the take-home message from our research and The Guardian's article is clear: it is important that buyers of carbon credits proceed carefully and with strict scrutiny to deliver real climate impact.

These sticky challenges exist across many segments of the carbon credit market and inform our client work at Carbon Direct. The Carbon Direct team is committed to all elements of our clients’ decarbonization plans from measurement to reduction and, finally, carbon removal. With many segments of the economy still a challenge to decarbonize, and the IPCC making clear the need for large-scale carbon removal, we view carbon credits—carbon removal credits, specifically—as one tool for our clients to help scale carbon management in a manner consistent with the IPCC recommendations.

While challenges remain, leading organizations continue to work to find removal sources that achieve climate goals. In combination with meaningful reduction efforts, Carbon Direct clients like Microsoft are purchasing large volumes of real, valid, and verifiable forms of carbon removal in both engineered and nature-based solutions. To learn more about how to purchase high-quality, high-integrity carbon removal, we encourage you to read the criteria that Carbon Direct developed with Microsoft to help both suppliers and buyers of carbon offsets make accurate, science-backed determinations about quality.