A Key Carbon Offset Program May Have Increased Emissions!

A central part of the UN’s carbon emission reduction program has been the carbon credit scheme. But a new review of that process reveals that, rather than reducing carbon emissions, countries abusing that system may have produced millions of tons of extra emissions.

The problem centers around the only binding international environmental agreement to tackle climate change known as the Kyoto Protocol and its use of carbon credits. We have a thorough exploration of carbon credits here but, briefly, the Protocol allows for countries to buy and sell carbon credits which are created when countries cut carbon emissions. This was seen as a necessary incentive to ensuring that nations would adhere to the Protocol, as it meant that there could be reimbursement and even profit made for whatever outlay was needed to cut carbon emissions in the first place.

However, new research by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) shows that several countries may have abused a particular facet of the carbon credit scheme known as Joint Implementation. Under the scheme, countries like Russia and the Ukraine have been claiming carbon credits for things like putting restrictions on gas emissions from petroleum production and the like. They then sold those carbon credits on for a profit. But the SEI says those reductions in emissions weren’t real and would have happened anyway independently of the carbon credit scheme.

Why is this important? Given that Europe and the UN have been building targets around the carbon markets and claims of offsetting and trade, this means the figures have to be revised and, if the SEI’s analysis is anything to go by, substantially. 

Says the SEI:

“The analysis indicates that about three-quarters of JI offsets are unlikely to represent additional emissions reductions. This suggests that the use of JI offsets may have enabled global GHG emissions to be about 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent higher than they would have been if countries had met their emissions domestically.”

Out of all the programs the SEI assessed, it found that only the N2O abatement from nitric acid production program appeared to have what has been dubbed “environmental integrity” or, to put it another way, translated into real-world reductions that wouldn’t have happened as a result of other practices or trends. 

In terms of the real world harm that this could have done to European emission tracking, the researchers believe it may add up to around $2 billion, which is the equivalent to about 400 million tons of carbon.

Of particular concern was that the review, part of which is published in Nature this month with more to come later, finds that Russia and the Ukraine made money from saying they had reduced the chemicals HFC-23 and sulphur hexafluoride, which have both been found to have a heavy warming effect when in our atmosphere. Rather than cutting emissions, though, the research suggests that Russia and Ukraine ramped up production of the chemicals specifically in order to destroy them. That means that they likely released more emissions into the atmosphere on top of that, and so could have ended up causing more total emissions as a result.

Russian officials speaking to the BBC deny these accusations and say that Russia has always acted within the rules of the Kyoto Protocol. However, a UN official speaking anonymously to the Guardian confirmed for the paper that this report is “thoroughly researched and probably correct”, and that widespread abuse of the credit scheme by some countries was well known to the UN. Experts from the Ukraine have also agreed that there appears to have been a desire to game the system in order to benefit, particularly in the face of the EU tightening its grip on credits in other areas.

The review did find some positives though. Carbon offsetting in other countries such as Germany and Poland was regulated by strict criteria, and the carbon credits these countries sold were found to largely tally with real efforts to reduce emissions. As such, we know that schemes like this can work but must be tightly controlled. As such, experts are warning that this is a wake up call ahead of December’s climate talks in Paris.

In addition to ensuring that countries like China and India–who are among the biggest producers of carbon emissions in the world today–are not left out of these talks, there is a need to create a binding agreement that has strict enforcement measures that are not left up to the discretion of individual nations. Instead, they should be assessed by a central body whose own selection is carefully monitored and is completely transparent.

What’s clear from the SEI’s revelation about carbon credits is that there remains an appetite to undermine and even profiteer from environmental policies, and usually at the cost of the environment we are seeking to protect. Only an agreement that actually has teeth will be acceptable come December’s talks. Sadly, that’s anything but guaranteed, but some nations, including the US, are making encouraging steps toward meaningful change.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Ian P.
Ian Pabout a year ago

It always did seem like smoke and mirrors to me.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran2 years ago


Manuela C.
Manuela C2 years ago

There's always a scheme...

Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell2 years ago


Maggie W.
Maggie D2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Al H.
Past Member 2 years ago

Thanks for more bad news. Curb population growth, curb dirty methods of production, curb greed, then maybe we can START to reverse this destructive path we are on. I'm not holding my breath though.

Kamia T.
Kamia T2 years ago

I don't think carbon offset works at all. We simply can't afford to tell anyone that it's okay to pollute, they can buy their way out of it.

Miriam O.
Miriam AWAY S2 years ago

Thanks so much for sharing this article!

Dt Nc
Dt Nc2 years ago

Heartless a$$holes trying to benefit from others death.