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John Oliver’s Comedy Carbon Credit Appraisal

John Oliver recently made carbon offsetting the target of a segment on his HBO chat show, Last Week Tonight.

We won’t deny his obvious comedy talent, but we do strongly disagree with his notion that the entire carbon offsetting industry is a fraud. In his effort to create a simple narrative he has overlooked the complexity of the situation and unfairly sought to discredit the entire industry based on a handful of examples.

Many have already issued responses to Oliver, so not all his claims will be addressed here. But we will respond to three of his claims that have particular relevance to us.

Here’s why we disagree with Oliver’s dismissal of the carbon offsetting industry.

Claim #1 Offsets don’t reliably reduce emissions

Quoting a Bloomberg Law article, Oliver says: “study after study has indicated that most offsets available on the market don’t reliably reduce emissions.”

The reality is, the most comprehensive peer-reviewed study on the subject to date has revealed quite the opposite. When 40 voluntary carbon projects from the developing world were compared to areas of similar topography but without active projects, they found that deforestation was 47% lower and degradation 58% lower.

And here’s the thing… nobody is claiming that the carbon market is perfect. But overall, it’s having a significant positive impact. Not in ten years… not next week… Now. And that’s exactly what we need.

Oliver is correct that the quality of carbon credits does vary. That’s certainly true of older credits created when the regulatory environment was different. For this reason, at Likvidi we don’t hold any credits that were issued before 2016.

The whole industry is constantly evolving, with experts and scientists investigating, testing and developing new ways of achieving positive outcomes that reduce carbon emissions.

In contrast to what Oliver would have us believe, the carbon market is not a money-making racket, but represents a genuine, long-term effort to restore planetary balance.

Claim #2 Carbon projects can’t be trusted to do what they claim

Oliver makes several points regarding lack of oversight, the principle of additionality, and the risk of forest fires, while missing several counterpoints.

For example, Oliver tells us that “carbon projects can, and have, literally gone up in flames.” This is true. There is no way to know which forests will fall victim to wildfires, or when. But this fact isn’t lost on regulators.

For many years, this risk has been written into the detail of carbon credit issuances. Projects must provide a certain amount of extra credits as a buffer to insure against the risk of fire. Additionally, the risk of forest fires is exactly the sort of thing that forestry projects can help protect against through improved forest management.

As technology improves, we’re finding new ways of overseeing our projects. New AI-enabled satellite imaging means we’ll soon be able to conduct flyovers of forestry projects within 48 hours, a clear advantage when working with projects spread over the globe in many hard-to-reach places. Not only does this help us ensure projects are still running smoothly, it also gives us a faster and more accurate way of assessing the amount of carbon being sequestered.

Oliver uses Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and a project in rural Pennsylvania as examples where phoney credits were awarded based on projected logging that had no chance of happening. These projects deserve to be called out, but they are special cases — they are not the norm.

Our projects are verified by Verra, not American Carbon Registry as the aforementioned projects are, and these projects must undergo a rigorous auditing process by a third party, which many projects do indeed fail.

We hand-pick our carbon projects to ensure that they’re doing exactly what they’re claiming to. In each of our projects: The Rimba Raya Nature Reserve in Indonesia; the Pacajai project in Brazil; and the Mai Ndombe project in Congo, the threat to nature and subsequent value of conservation is proveable and legitimate.

Claim #3 There’s nowhere near enough room on Earth to plant enough trees

John Oliver makes the claim that there is not enough land on earth to meaningfully reduce GHG emissions. He says that “there’s only about 500 million hectares of land left that can be dedicated to new forests for carbon capture.” and that Shell has “proposed planting a tenth of that.”

‘Only’ 500 million hectares? For reference, that’s an area equivalent to the total landmass of India, the UK, France, Spain, and Germany combined. If we consider that the average amount of carbon a forest can hold varies between 700–800 tonnes per hectare, we can estimate that there’s the potential for 350 gigatons of CO2 to be absorbed via forestry. That’s an incredible amount of carbon sequestration potential that should be utilised, not sniffed at.

While land use is an important issue with massive relevance to carbon capture, this ignores the fact that new methods of carbon capture are developing, often enabled by green finance made available through the carbon market.

Blue Carbon, for example, refers to carbon stored in mangroves, seagrasses, and tidal marshes. Much research is currently going into the capture of carbon via seagrass farms, opening another possibility for reducing carbon emissions that need no land.

Carbon can also be stored in soils. By transitioning to more sustainable agricultural methods like ‘no till’ farming, farmers could earn carbon credits by capturing carbon alongside growing crops more sustainably. Before long, forestry-based carbon capture will likely be just one of many nature-based carbon capture technologies.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

Though not perfect, what else is doing more to take carbon out of the atmosphere than the thousands of projects made possible by the carbon market?

Oliver’s limited discussion ignores the overwhelming majority of projects that help prevent climate change and future-proof the planet.

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