In Channel 4’s current streaming feature, “The Great Climate Scandal,” journalist Matt Shea delves into investigations surrounding Verra, an international non-profit organization collaborating with governments and businesses to certify carbon credits.

Carbon credits, which are tradeable permits representing the right to emit a specific amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, are intended to encourage businesses and governments to reduce their overall emissions. The concept of “offsetting” involves organizations purchasing credits from projects that mitigate an equivalent amount of CO2 emissions, with many viewing this as a potential avenue to meet global Net Zero targets.

While major global organizations, including significant CO2 emitters, have embraced this practice in recent years, concerns have been raised by environmental groups and investigative journalists regarding the trustworthiness of some credits. The pivotal question emerges: Can the authenticity of these carbon offset schemes be relied upon in the crucial endeavour to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Deforestation Allegations

Channel 4’s investigation focuses on alarming allegations that Verra, a key certifier of carbon credits globally, has endorsed carbon reduction projects allegedly contributing to rainforest destruction in Cambodia. Journalist Matt Shea interviews The Guardian’s Patrick Greenfield, whose reporting has scrutinized projects in the carbon offset market, revealing that some schemes may not be preventing deforestation as claimed.

Further reports highlight forest offsetting projects in the global south, particularly in Cambodia, where corruption and illegal logging are widespread. A Verra-certified foresting project in Tumring, Cambodia, intended to protect over 680 sq. km of rainforest, faces scrutiny due to satellite imagery suggesting significant deforestation—up to 22%—since the project’s inception. Despite these findings, the project remains certified by Verra and available in the carbon credit market.

Human Rights Abuse Allegations

Carbon credit projects in Cambodia are also linked to allegations of human rights abuses supported by the authoritarian government, involving arrests and assaults on environmental activists. Award-winning Cambodian journalist Leng Ouch, who endured imprisonment for exposing illegal logging, shares footage of environmental abuses, pleading for international help to stop human rights abuses and illegal logging.

A project in Southern Cardamom, run by Wildlife Alliance and endorsed by Verra, faces accusations of human rights abuses. Local indigenous people allege intimidation by patrollers enforcing rainforest boundaries, and the project is under investigation by Human Rights Watch. Despite these claims, Verra has paused carbon credits for the project pending a review.

Carbon Market Conferences

The documentary captures Matt Shea’s attempts to address these allegations with Verra representatives at carbon offsetting conferences. Delegates express reluctance to discuss their activities on camera, with some admitting disappointment and scepticism about the legitimacy of carbon credits. Verra spokespersons, including Sustainable Development Director Sinclair Vincent and Chief of Legal and Policy Robin Rix, struggle to provide satisfactory responses to specific allegations.

Verra’s Response

In response to the documentary’s claims, a Verra spokesperson asserts that the film misrepresents the voluntary carbon market (VCM) and Verra’s role, emphasizing the organization’s commitment to integrity and continuous improvement of standards. Verra denies over-issuing carbon credits, challenging claims based on studies using “synthetic controls” and satellite image analysis as inconclusive evidence.

Wildlife Alliance’s Response

The Wildlife Alliance disputes the accuracy of the Human Rights Watch report, labelling it as misleading and based on a small number of interviews. They assert that the Southern Cardamom REDD+ project has undergone three validations and verifications since 2018, protecting the area from illegal environmental activity. They attribute uncertainty to the lack of land titling in Cambodia and emphasize efforts to delineate community land boundaries without physical violence against offenders.

“The Great Climate Scandal” offers a critical examination of the carbon credit system, raising questions about the authenticity of projects certified by Verra. The documentary prompts discussions on the effectiveness of carbon offsetting in achieving global climate goals and highlights the need for transparency and accountability in the voluntary carbon market.