Thursday, February 25, 2021

"These Trees Are Not What They Seem: How the Nature Conservancy, the world’s biggest environmental group, became a dealer of meaningless carbon offsets"

Following up on yesterday's "Norway, Sweden, and Finland Evicting Ugandan Farmers For Carbon Credits" another aspect of the scammy nature of the carbon credits/offsets business.

From Bloomberg Green,  December 9, 2020:

At first glance, big corporations appear to be protecting great swaths of U.S. forests in the fight against climate change.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. has paid almost $1 million to preserve forestland in eastern Pennsylvania.
Forty miles away, Walt Disney Co. has spent hundreds of thousands to keep the city of Bethlehem, Pa., from aggressively harvesting a forest that surrounds its reservoirs.
Across the state line in New York, investment giant BlackRock Inc. has paid thousands to the city of Albany to refrain from cutting trees around its reservoirs.

JPMorgan, Disney, and BlackRock tout these projects as an important mechanism for slashing their own large carbon footprints. By funding the preservation of carbon-absorbing forests, the companies say, they’re offsetting the carbon-producing impact of their global operations. But in all of those cases, the land was never threatened; the trees were already part of well-preserved forests.

Rather than dramatically change their operations—JPMorgan executives continue to jet around the globe, Disney’s cruise ships still burn oil, and BlackRock’s office buildings gobble up electricity—the corporations are working with the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental group, to employ far-fetched logic to help absolve them of their climate sins. By taking credit for saving well-protected land, these companies are reducing nowhere near the pollution that they claim.

The Nature Conservancy recruits landowners and enrolls its own well-protected properties in carbon-offset projects, which generate credits that give big companies an inexpensive way to claim large emissions reductions. In these transactions, each metric ton of reduced emissions is represented by a financial instrument known as a carbon offset. The corporations buy the offsets, with the money flowing to the landowners and the Conservancy. The corporate buyers then use those credits to subtract an equivalent amount of emissions from their own ledgers.

The market for these credits is booming, according to BloombergNEF, a clean-energy research group. In the first 10 months of this year, companies used more than 55.1 million carbon credits to offset their emissions (equivalent to the pollution from 12 million cars), a 28% increase from the same period in 2019. While some of these credits are paying for projects that are truly reducing emissions, an unknown number represent inflated claims.

Few have jumped into this growing market with as much zeal as the Nature Conservancy, which was founded 69 years ago by a small group of ecologists seeking to preserve the last unspoiled lands in the U.S. In the seven decades since, the nonprofit in Arlington, Va., has grown into an environmental juggernaut, protecting more than 125 million acres. Last year its revenue was $932 million, which eclipsed the combined budgets of the country’s next three largest environmental nonprofits.

 Now, with an increasing number of companies looking for creative ways to cut emissions, the nonprofit has accelerated its work on carbon projects. But a review of hundreds of pages of documents underpinning those projects and interviews with a half-dozen participating landowners indicate that the Conservancy is often preserving forested lands that don’t need defending.

“For the credits to be real, the payment needs to induce the environmental benefit,” says Danny Cullenward, a lecturer at Stanford and policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that analyzes climate solutions. If the Conservancy is enrolling landowners who had no intention of cutting their trees, he adds, “they’re engaged in the business of creating fake carbon offsets.”

The Conservancy defends its carbon-offset projects, saying that all adhere to peer-reviewed methodologies developed by independent registries and that each project is validated by third-party auditors. “We have absolutely no motivation to not achieve real climate solutions,” says Lynn Scarlett, chief external affairs officer at the Conservancy. JPMorgan, Disney, and BlackRock declined to be interviewed for this story.

“We just don’t have time for false offsets that take credit 
for reductions that were already happening anyway”

The blistering urgency of the planet’s climate crisis is almost impossible to overstate. To avert the most dangerous effects of a rapidly warming planet, leading scientific bodies warn that global emissions must be cut by half in the next decade. Thousands of the world’s biggest companies have vowed to do their part, but a lot of that corporate emissions-cutting is accomplished through buying offsets. When the credits represent no actual carbon reduction, it’s a setback the planet can’t afford.

Barbara Haya, research fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied these types of carbon projects for almost two decades. “We just don’t have time for false offsets that take credit for reductions that were already happening anyway,” she says.

Two sharp-shinned hawks float elegantly above sloping Appalachian ridgelines, long black tails pronounced against the light gray October sky. The mountaintop is dense with leafy green oak trees, speckled with bursts of the rusty orange and pale yellows of maples, hemlock, and black gum. This forested ridge, 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is claimed as a protectorate of JPMorgan and other corporate patrons, whose good works in defense of the thick forestland generate carbon credits from a project the Nature Conservancy has orchestrated.

This is how the carbon accounting works: These 2,380 acres of trees have absorbed almost a half-million tons of carbon dioxide, storing it in their trunks, stems, and roots. If not for payments for carbon offsets coming from corporate buyers such as JPMorgan, all this would be jeopardized, according to documents for the project, developed by the Conservancy and Blue Source LLC, a carbon-project development company. Aggressive timber harvesting could “feasibly occur,” the documents say, wiping out about 89% of the living trees in only five years.

In other words, a tree massacre has been averted thanks to the payments from these corporations. By avoiding this so-called baseline scenario of deforestation, the landowner generates hundreds of thousands of carbon offsets—worth millions of dollars—over a two-decade period. JPMorgan has already acquired more than 96,000 of the offsets, which it applies to its own environmental ledger to help erase the emissions from its employees’ air travel. “Climate change is a critical issue of our time,” Daniel Pinto, co-president of JPMorgan, said in an October press release. “While the world has a long way to go, we at JPMorgan Chase want to do more.”

But this Pennsylvania ridge wasn’t in peril.....