A vast new study by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has been making waves, exposing on a never seen before scale the multibillion-dollar failings of certification. The stories they have uncovered underline why civil society has for decades been raising alarm bells about the problems plaguing certification and carbon offsets.
Spanning some 50 countries, the ICIJ investigation “exposes how a lightly regulated sustainability industry overlooks forest destruction and human rights violations when granting environmental certifications”. It pinpoints the role of unregulated, and sometimes complicit auditing firms, which typically take the information provided by the companies themselves on faith, and investigate no further. Their studies show how companies use certification to misinform consumers and shareholders alike, and falsely claim to uphold environmental and social standards. This greenwashing exercise is lucrative; a US$ 200 billion testing, inspection and certification industry.
The investigation echoes the recent broad and collaborative investigation, led by Die Zeit and The Guardian newspapers with support from SourceMaterial, into the Verra-administered Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) that underpins some 75 per cent of all carbon offsets sold on the carbon market. A global team of academic researchers assessed 29 international projects, and found that 90 per cent of the credits were based on hugely inflated claims of “emissions avoided” – already a dubious concept, when actual, dramatic reductions are what is needed – and achieved almost nothing in terms of climate or social benefit (FW 282). On 10 March, following the investigation, Verra – the world’s largest carbon credit certifier – announced it would phase out and replace its rainforest offset programme.
Civil society organisations such as Fern are pleased to see the buzz generated by these investigations, and are far from surprised by the findings: NGOs have been making noise about the practical failures of certification and of make-believe offsets of all types for two decades.
Certification and offsetting schemes offer considerable financial and market benefits, but rarely incur penalties when they are shown to have violated consumers’ trust; in addition to environmental groups, the European Consumer Organisation, representing 46 consumer organisations across 32 countries, also believes they should be banned. These voluntary initiatives have not prevented large-scale forest destruction, or human rights abuses, or land conflicts.
These recent investigations underline why civil society commended EU decisionmakers for keeping certification out of the upcoming EU Regulation on deforestation-free products, and why there is so much concern that the Commission is considering legislation that would implicitly support carbon offsetting (FW 281).
While carbon emissions must urgently be reduced; this cannot be achieved through legitimising certifiers that generate meaningless offset credits.
UN Secretary General António Guterres could not have said it more forcefully last year: with less than a decade left to avert climate catastrophe, “our world cannot afford any more greenwashing, fake movers or late movers.”
The testing, inspection and certification industry is expected to grow to more than $328 billion by 2029. With so much money to be made and little to restrain unscrupulous actors, the EU cannot leave it up to civil society and journalists to expose flaws. They must show they are taking a hard line to prevent false solutions like offsetting.