- The world’s leading carbon offsetting certifier has responded to accusations brought forward in a Channel 4 documentary that it has permitted rainforest destruction and human rights abuses in projects it endorses
- Verra, the leading certifier of carbon credits, is accused of approving projects that have caused deforestation in Cambodia
- Human Rights Watch investigating carbon reduction rainforest project where Indigenous Cambodians reportedly live in fear of homes and farmland being destroyed by armed rangers
- Journalists and environmental groups have raised alarm bells about the carbon offset market seeming to be “totally unregulated”
- Documentary is available to stream now as part of Channel 4’s Change Climate Season
In The Great Climate Scandal, streaming now on Channel 4, journalist Matt Shea investigates reports around Verra, an international non-profit company that works with governments and businesses to certify carbon credits.
Carbon credits are tradable permits representing the right to emit a specific amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, aimed at incentivizing businesses and governments to reduce their overall emissions. Organisations can “offset” their CO2 emissions by buying credits from projects that mitigate the equivalent amount of CO2 emissions. Many businesses and institutions see the carbon credit system as a potential route towards reducing carbon emissions enough to meet global Net Zero targets.
While the practice has been popularised in recent years by major global organisations, including some of the biggest CO2 emitters buying into them, environmental groups and investigative journalists have raised questions over whether some of these credits are as trustworthy as they appear. Can the world rely on the authenticity of these carbon offset schemes in the vital effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
Channel 4’s investigation follows alarming claims that Verra – one of the key organisations responsible for certifying carbon credits around the world – has given approval to carbon reduction projects alleged to have contributed to rainforest destruction in Cambodia.
In the documentary, reporter Matt Shea meets Guardian journalist Patrick Greenfield whose reporting this year has scrutinised projects in the carbon offsetting marketing. Speaking of some of the activities he has investigated, Patrick tells Matt: “Many of these schemes are not stopping any deforestation at all or stopping very small amounts.”
Matt finds further reports of forest offsetting projects around the global south that appeared to be doing more harm than good, not just to the planet but also local people. A number of these projects appeared to be located in Cambodia, where there is widespread corruption and illegal logging.
One Verra verified foresting project in Tumring, Cambodia, set out to protect over 680 sq. km of rainforest but investigations have reported unusually high levels of deforestation as shown by satellite photography. Imagery from Landsat satellites appears to show up to 22% of the rainforest in the protected area has been lost since the Tumring project was set up. At the time of filming, the project was still certified by Verra and available through the carbon credit market. Journalist Joe Sandler Clarke from Greenpeace Unearthed, who published the initial investigation last month, tells Matt that he believes investors in the market are “nervous”.
Allegations of human rights abuses
Other carbon credit in projects in Cambodia have been connected with claims of human rights abuses supported by the kingdom’s authoritarian government, with reports of arrests and assaults on environmental activists.
Matt speaks with award-winning Cambodian journalist Leng Ouch, who has spent over two decades campaigning to protect the country’s rainforests and was beaten and imprisoned for his attempts to expose illegal logging. Leng shares footage of environmental abuses he has tried to uncover and tells Matt: “We need your help: From international organisations; From international donors; From world leaders. We have to stop the human rights abuse, stop illegal logging in Cambodia and stop timber business with Vietnam and China.”
Further anger surrounds a Cambodian foresting project in Southern Cardamom run by Wildlife Alliance, who have sold carbon credits to the likes of Stella McCartney, Gucci, Deliveroo and Air France. The Southern Cardamom project sets out to create verified carbon credits by protecting an area of rainforest in the region, but Wildlife Alliance has faced allegations of human rights abuses amid claims that local indigenous people are being intimidated by patrollers enforcing the rainforest’s boundaries. The project is being investigated by Human Rights Watch. Verra, who had verified the project, have since paused the carbon credits while it reviews these allegations.
Matt speaks to Cambodian journalist Meng Kroypunlok, who tells him that the local indigenous population are “scared” of Wildlife Alliance rangers, who alongside Cambodian authorities are said to patrol the forests with guns. These patrols have reportedly burnt down homes and farmland of the local people. “When they see the patrollers from Wildlife Alliance, they just run”, Meng tells Matt. “The community has said they want to protect their forest too, but the Wildlife Alliance don’t give them the opportunities.”
Carbon market conferences
Channel 4’s documentary follows Matt’s repeated attempts to get a representative from Verra to address these allegations. Matt is filmed behind the scenes at conferences on the theme of carbon offsetting held by CE Events & Media.
At one climate offsetting conference, an event organiser tells Matt that attendees are concerned to speak about their activities in front of journalists. Very few delegates in attendance agreed to speak on camera about carbon offsetting activities. One carbon trader in attendance at the same event tells Matt “The industry is under so much fire ever since The Guardian article. Some people were very disappointed to find out the credits they bought were not real. A lot of people think that carbon credits are a scam. There’s a lot of really good projects; there are also a lot of very questionable projects.”
At a later conference, Matt is able to address a Verra spokesperson, Sustainable Development Director, Sinclair Vincent, on a panel to ask for the organisation’s response to the allegations of human rights abuses on the South Cardamom project. Ms Vincent is unable to provide a full response to the specific human rights abuse claims and later declines to speak on camera.
At another conference, filming undercover, Matt is able to approach Robin Rix, Verra’s Chief of Legal and Policy, to put forward questions about the Tumring project, but Mr Rix is not able to fully address why Verra had continued to verify a project where deforestation appears to have increased.
Patrick Greenfield tells Matt: “Companies, when they’re looking for these credits, seek out ones approved by Gold Standard or Verra. Verra are the biggest… They are the guardians and they’re there to safeguard the integrity of the system. They say what’s real and what isn’t. We need to trust them. They need to be using the best possible science.”
In response to claims in this documentary, spokesperson for Verra told Channel 4:
Verra welcomes and encourages discussions and examinations of the voluntary carbon market (VCM) from stakeholders including communities where projects take place, the media, and the broader scientific community. This documentary misrepresents the VCM and Verra’s role within it and failed to engage with Verra in good faith throughout the production process.
Verra is a mission-driven non-profit organization, committed to integrity and continuous improvement of its Standards and methodologies. This is so that projects upholding these standards can continue the critical work of investing in nature.
Verra has issued over one billion carbon credits since 2009, which have enabled billions of dollars to be channelled to urgent climate action, which is vital to keeping us on track for the Paris Agreement goal.
Verra-certified REDD projects do not over-issue carbon credits. The claims made are based on studies using “synthetic controls” or similar methods that do not account for project-specific factors that cause deforestation. Similarly, it is hazardous to consider satellite images analysis as conclusive evidence that the projects’ data are underestimating deforestation.
In regards to questions about the Southern Cardamom REDD+ project and the Tumring project, Verra could not provide comment as both projects were under review at the time of filming.
The Wildlife Alliance’s response
The Wildlife Alliance told us they disputed the accuracy of the Human Rights Watch report which they said was misleading and based on a small number of interviews with those involved in illegal environmental activity. They told us that the Southern Cardamom REDD+ has been validated and verified three times by third party auditors since 2018 and was protecting the area from illegal environmental activity.
They also told Channel 4 that:
The uncertainty caused by lack of land titling in Cambodia has resulted in the perception of unclear boundaries of community land… Wildlife Alliance has done everything we could to help the people to delineate the community land.
There have never been any physical violence against any forest offenders. We have provided all the legal documents to HRW proving the legal process of each case.
Rangers are from a multi-disciplinary team and are observed by Wildlife Alliance to make sure that law enforcement is implemented transparently. They have been trained to the highest standards.
The Great Climate Scandal is streaming now on Channel 4 and Channel 4 Documentaries on YouTube. The documentary is part of Channel 4’s Change Climate Season, a collection of programming dedicated to exploring solutions to the climate crisis as part of the public service broadcaster’s ongoing commitment to inform the public about this urgent global issue.
The Great Climate Scandal
Production Company: Flying Shoe Films/Meldrum Dent
Reporter: Matt Shea
Executive Producer: Chris Dent
Director/Executive Producer: Heydon Prowse
Digital Commissioning Executive for Channel 4: Thomas Pullen
Producer: Katy Muddyman, Rosy Milner
Camera/editor: Charlie Hyams
Camera: Saf Suleyman, Fionn Guilfoyle
Editor: Roshan Bhatt
Animation: Che Martin
For further information: Nick Walker, Channel 4 Press Office