Carbon offsets are often derided as a modern-day form of the Catholic indulgence. Pollute as much as you want, pay for someone else to offset your emissions, and feel good at the end of the day. But polluters might not feel so great after learning about what Greenpeace is calling a “carbon scam“–a Bolivian carbon offset project that is actually increasing deforestation in the region.
Here’s how The Noel Kempff Climate Action Project (NKCAP) was supposed to work: American Electric Power, BP, and Pacificorp agreed to buy many millions of dollars worth of carbon offset credits from the Bolivian government. In exchange, the government would stop deforestation for 30 years near Noel Kempff National Park (NKNP), thus greatly reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (a program known as REDD).
That’s not exactly how it’s worked out, Greenpeace says. The government has claimed to offset 55 million metric tons of carbon emissions in the first decade of the program (1997 to 2009) by leaving forests near the national park alone. But research shows the government only offset “up to” 5.8 million tons each year. At the same time, logging may have simply moved from the NKCAP protected area to other nearby areas, negating any positive effects of the deal. And changes in Bolivian forest law mean that forests left standing as a result of the project may have stayed untouched anyway.
The Nature Conservancy disagrees, claiming, “The Noel Kempff project also serves as an example of how well-designed
forest carbon projects can result in real, scientifically measurable
and verifiable emissions reductions with important benefits for
biodiversity and local communities.” The organization’s Cool Green Science blog goes on to say that the project has preserved a diverse forest ecosystem, cut 1,034,107 metric tons of verifiable CO2, and provided economic opportunities to locals.
There is no clearcut way to discern whether Greenpeace or the Nature Conservancy is in the wrong here, but we can take away an important lesson from the debate: carbon offsets should always be taken with a grain of salt.