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Cropped 25 January 2023: Carbon offsets controversy; Trade wars; Methane round-up – Carbon Brief

Cropped 25 January 2023: Carbon offsets controversy; Trade wars; Methane round-up – Carbon Brief

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped. 
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

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An investigation into Verra, the world’s main organisation for approving carbon offset projects, found more than 90% of rainforest-related offsets to be “worthless”. Verra responded with a statement arguing that the research was based on incorrect methodologies, while several forest experts called for not abandoning offsets as a financial tool.

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Tensions have continued to rise over the EU’s new deforestation legislation, which has yet to be formally approved. Malaysia threatened to halt palm oil exports to the bloc in response to the new law, which requires producers to prove that their commodities were not grown on newly deforested land.

With just seven years to achieve a 30% reduction in methane emissions, the UN Environment Programme has warned that emissions will continue to rise if the world stays on its current trajectory. Danone recently became the first major food company to set its own targets towards achieving the Global Methane Pledge.

Key developments

‘Worthless’ carbon offsets

CARBON CONCERNS: An investigation by the Guardian, the German weekly Die Zeit and the not-for-profit journalism organisation Source Material revealed that more than 90% of the rainforest carbon offsets sold under the verified carbon standard of Verra – the world’s biggest provider of such offsets – are “worthless”, the Guardian wrote. The investigation rapidly gained international attention. The journalists analysed scientific studies of Verra’s rainforest schemes and carried out on-the-ground reporting and interviews with scientists, industry experts and Indigenous communities. Along with two groups of scientists, the journalists reviewed two-thirds of Verra’s 87 active offsetting projects and found that the carbon offsets “are likely to be ‘phantom credits’ and do not represent genuine carbon reductions”, according to the Guardian. Verra approves three-quarters of all carbon offsets and is used by several companies and private entities – including Disney, Shell, Gucci and Pearl Jam – to achieve their net-zero targets, the outlet added.

VERRA’S RESPONSE: Verra issued a statement in which the company denied that their REDD+ projects are “consistently and substantively over-issuing carbon credits”. It said that the investigation is based on studies that use methods that do not consider specific drivers of deforestation and do not represent the specific conditions in the project area. Thus, the company said, the journalism outlets “miscalculate[d] the impact of REDD+ projects”. Verra pointed out that they collaborate with experts to refine methodologies and are working on establishing a single methodology for all REDD+ projects in order to “ensure consistency in emissions reduction within a set region”.

FINANCING REMAINS CRUCIAL: The Guardian wrote that several scientists have called for substantial changes to conserve rainforests through new financing schemes. Some researchers have asked for a consistent method that can be applied to all areas, while others suggested that the “offset market is broken”. In another article, the Guardian stressed the importance of financing forest conservation through private investments, including carbon markets. That piece pointed out that at the UN climate change summit in Glasgow in 2021, world governments only committed to allocate $12bn to protect and restore forests – an amount well below the $393bn that is needed to achieve the pledge of protecting forests by 2050. In a statement, scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry cautioned governments from abandoning carbon offsets, citing the “effective role REDD+ can play in mitigating the effects of industries that cannot decarbonise”.

Trade wars brewing

DEVELOPING DISCONTENT: The EU’s “green ambitions”, including its new deforestation legislation (which was agreed upon in December but not yet formally approved) are stirring up unrest amongst some of its largest trading partners, Politico reported. The outlet wrote that “developing nations, especially” see the EU’s pursuit of “climate neutrality and sustainable food production” coming at their own expense. It added that “more far-reaching legislation”, including a law concerning sustainable production, “is still underway”. Time carried a piece on the “range of questions and complaints” regarding the US Inflation Reduction Act, which has come under fire from the country’s closest allies for its “protectionist” policies. The magazine wrote: “Now, the attention turns to how the US – and its partners and competitors – reconcile climate and trade considerations.”

HISTORICAL RESPONSIBILITIES: Politico also noted a “sensitive point” contained within developing countries’ discontent – the sense that the EU is “imposing its own measures instead of forging an international deal” towards climate mitigation. The countries cited the principle of “common, but differentiated, responsibilities”, which underpins the Paris Agreement and says that countries have different obligations towards environmental protection based on their current situations and historical contributions to environmental destruction. (Cropped covered some of the conflict surrounding the deforestation legislation in its last issue.)

PALM OIL PROBLEMS: Backlash to the deforestation law is already brewing, with Malaysia announcing that it “could” halt palm oil exports to the EU in response to the law, Reuters reported. Malaysian commodities minister Fadillah Yusof has said his country will confer on the new law with Indonesia. (Malaysia and Indonesia are the world’s top producers of palm oil, accounting for nearly 85% of global production.) The newswire also reported that Fadillah has called on the other members of the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries to “work together against the new law and to combat ‘baseless allegations’ made by the EU and US about the sustainability of palm oil”. In response to the Malaysian minister’s comments, the EU ambassador to Malaysia “denied that its deforestation law created barriers to Malaysian exports”, Reuters wrote.

Methane round-up

CLIMATE KEY: An editorial in the journal Nature Climate Change called methane reductions – from all sources – “key to achieving climate goals”. The piece referenced a new study in the same journal that detailed how wetlands are becoming a “dominant” source of methane but also warned that “the increasing contribution of the natural wetlands…should not divert attention away from the importance of anthropogenic sources”. The editorial also cited a December 2022 report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, which provided a baseline for the Global Methane Pledge and found that methane emissions will continue to rise over the rest of the decade “without additional efforts” towards mitigation. The piece ended by saying that “further delay in reducing methane is unacceptable”.

MILK & METHANE: Bloomberg reported that French dairy giant Danone became the “first major food company to set targets in line” with the Global Methane Pledge, which calls for a 30% reduction in methane emissions over 2020 levels by 2030. The company’s plan specifically focuses on reducing emissions “from its fresh milk supply chain” and includes steps such as “better management of dairy herds, manure and feed additives”, Bloomberg wrote. The outlet added: “Reducing methane emissions from the agricultural sector is much harder than tackling it in the oil and gas sector.” Danone’s vice-president of regenerative agriculture policy told Bloomberg that better herd management can lower emissions and improve efficiency, leading to benefits for farmers as well.

COAL CONTROVERSY: The Guardian reported on an analysis by the environmental thinktank the Green Alliance, which examined the Whitehaven colliery, a “controversia[l]” new coal mine approved for construction in Cumbria, in north-west England. The report found that the mine “will release about 17,500 tonnes of methane every year”, which the Guardian noted is “about the same as 120,000 cattle, or about half the beef herd in Cumbria at present”. The Independent had also reported on the analysis in December, before the mine was approved. The Independent wrote at the time that the analysis had found that the “new mine would ‘blow a hole’ in the UK’s target to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and undermine its climate leadership”.

News and views

STRUGGLING SEABIRDS: US-based researchers are moving endangered storm petrel chicks from their imperilled island home to higher ground more than 800 kilometres away in a “desperate effort” to save the seabirds from extinction, the Associated Press (AP) reported. The newswire noted that a “pending change” to the US law protecting endangered species would make such relocations easier. However, it added: “Concerns persist that the novel practice could cause unintended harm the same way invasive plants and animals have wreaked havoc on native species.” Similar relocations have been proposed for several other species that are “struggling with climate change” or otherwise endangered, the AP added.

AMAZON ALLIANCE: Less than a month after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, assumed Brazil’s presidency, he called for a continent-wide policy to conserve the Amazon, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported, via France24. Lula plans to meet with leaders of Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia and French Guiana to “discuss a continental policy to preserve our Amazon”, the newswire wrote. In his own country, Lula has pledged to halt deforestation of the Amazon by 2030. AFP added that he wants to establish a federal police body to protect the forests. “The commitment is to achieve zero deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. And I will pursue this with fire and sword,” Lula said.

DEBT-FOR-NATURE SWAPS: Several outlets have reported on projects to reduce developing countries’ debt in exchange for their investment in nature conservation – a scheme known as debt-for-nature swaps. The Nature Conservancy has estimated that “as much as $2tn of developing country debt may be eligible for this kind of restructuring”, Bloomberg reported. This includes a $364m deal that Belize made in 2021, in which the Nature Conservancy and Credit Suisse proposed to buyout the country’s $553m debt “if the government agreed to spend some of the savings to protect its fragile mangroves and coral reefs”, Bloomberg wrote. “At the time, the deal was hailed as an all-around success”, the outlet added, however a debt consultant said this financial scheme was “outrageously expensive”. Zambia has also received a proposal from the WWF to implement a debt-for-nature swap that would facilitate almost $1bn for green projects, Reuters reported.

ACCOUNTING FOR NATURE: The US federal government released a national strategy (pdf) for “natural capital accounting”, with the aim of “understand[ing] and consistently track[ing] changes in the condition and economic value of land, water, air and other natural assets”. An accompanying press release called the strategy “a historic roadmap” and said it would help “guide policy and business decisions moving forward”. The strategy reads: “Tackling climate change, restoring nature, cleaning our air, lakes, rivers, and the ocean, and regenerating degraded lands often are economic activities…and thus need to be captured in our economic accounts.”

ETHANOL’S CROSSROADS: In a comment in the Print, three Indian agriculture experts pointed out that 1m tonnes of rice was sold to produce ethanol in 2022, which, they wrote, “will directly compete with country’s nutritional security ambitions”. The authors explained that the government’s blending strategy aims to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and the country’s dependence on fuel imports. In addition to rice, crops of maize and sugarcane have also been allocated to produce ethanol, even as the Asian country faces annual inflation rates of nearly 14% for cereals, the authors wrote, adding that India is planning to reach 20% ethanol blending in its petrol by 2025-26. 

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ VOICES: Last week in Canada, “landmark deals” were agreed and signed by Indigenous peoples to place them in negotiations and include them in decision-making over the monitoring of two resource extraction projects, the Guardian reported. The first agreement was made between the mining company NWP Coal Canada and the Yaq̓it ʔa·knuqⱡi ‘it (YQT) community in British Columbia, giving the latter the power to act as regulators of the Crown Mountain project, set to open in 2025. In the second deal, the Blueberry River First Nations announced an agreement with British Columbia that will “see new protections for wildlife, a halt to logging in old-growth forests, [and] new compensation for the community”. The Guardian explained that the deals may signal “a possible shift in how industry and governments negotiate with communities on the frontlines of environmental degradation”.

Extra reading

New science

Megaherbivores modify forest structure and increase carbon stocks through multiple pathways
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

A new study found that forest-dwelling elephants increase the aboveground carbon stocks of African rainforests by consuming low-density plant species and dispersing the seeds of higher-density ones. Using data on elephants’ feeding preferences and habits, as well as nutritional information for nearly 150 plant species, the researchers unpacked how the megaherbivores engineer their ecosystems. They found that the loss of feeding pressures from forest elephants could result in a 6-9% decline in the aboveground carbon stock of these tropical forests. The authors concluded: “Successful elephant conservation will contribute to climate mitigation at a globally-relevant scale.”

Risk of intact forest landscape loss goes beyond global agricultural supply chains
One Earth

New research revealed that more than 60% of the intact forest loss associated with the world economy in 2014 was due to international consumption of non-agricultural goods, such as timber, energy and minerals. Researchers investigated the links between the loss of intact forest landscapes (IFL) and global supply chains by using a global deforestation dataset and a model of commodity production and consumption. The study found that export products come mainly from Russia, Canada and tropical regions, adding: “Our results show that, for IFL loss associated with the 2014 world economy, 37% was related to export production destined for global markets, especially mainland China, the EU and the US, of which more than three-quarters was directly caused by logging, mining and energy extraction.” The results “call for stronger government engagement and supply chain interventions”, the authors wrote.

Socioeconomic factors predict population changes of large carnivores better than climate change or habitat loss

The decline in the populations of the largest carnivores – including lions, tigers and wolves – are more “strongly associated with human socioeconomic growth” than other drivers such as habitat loss or climate change, a new study reported. The authors analysed features that played a role in the decline and recovery of 50 species of mammalian carnivores, and modelled how economic changes might have affected their populations in the second half of the last century. The authors found that “rapid increases in socioeconomic development are linked to sharp population declines”. However, they added, “importantly, once development slows, carnivore populations have the potential to recover”. 

In the diary

Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar, Daisy Dunne, Orla Dywer and and Yanine Quiroz. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected].

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