Researchers call Australia carbon credit scheme a ‘catastrophe’

Carbon stored by forests in the Outback was turned into credits and sold to heavily polluting industries to offset their emissions, but researchers said the forests haven’t performed this function

March 27, 2024 04:14 pm | Updated 04:14 pm IST

This file photo taken on July 19, 2002, shows a kangaroo standing next to a waterhole on a station near White Cliffs, an Outback area in the state of New South Wales, Australia.

This file photo taken on July 19, 2002, shows a kangaroo standing next to a waterhole on a station near White Cliffs, an Outback area in the state of New South Wales, Australia. | Photo Credit: AFP

Australia’s carbon credit scheme was undermined by damning new research on March 27, which found a world-leading reforestation project had been an underperforming “catastrophe”.

Vast swathes of land across Australia’s desert Outback have been earmarked for native forest regeneration meant to offset emissions as new trees suck up carbon.

But researchers have found that across almost 80% of these plantations forest growth was either stagnant or that woodlands were shrinking.

Despite this, Australia had used these projects to bank millions of tonnes in questionable carbon credits, scientists said, which are used to supposedly offset polluting industries.

“I think it can only be described, and I’m using generous words here, as a gross failure,” lead author Andrew Macintosh told AFP.

Australia has set aside almost 42 million hectares under the scheme, an area larger than the landmass of Japan. Researchers said it was “one of the world’s largest” natural carbon offset projects.

Officials claim that since 2013, the native forest spreading across this land has sucked up more than 27 million tonnes of carbon.

But the peer-reviewed study, which used satellite imagery to chart forest growth, has cast serious doubt on this figure.

“They should be showing really strong increases in tree cover,” said Dr. Macintosh, a former chair of the government body responsible for tracking Australia’s carbon offsets. “And it’s not there, we’re not seeing it.”

Each tonne of carbon sequestered by these forests is chalked up as a single carbon credit. These credits are then bought by mining companies, airlines, and other heavily polluting industries to offset their emissions.

Dr. Macintosh said Australia was, in essence, selling carbon credits that didn’t exist.

Australia’s Clean Energy Regulator said “a number of reviews have confirmed the integrity” of these carbon offsets.

The regulator said it “only issues carbon credits where a project can demonstrate regenerating native forest”.

Australian Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen said the assumptions underpinning the scheme remained “basically sound”.

Climate policy has long been a fraught affair in Australia, set back by a decade of political brawling dubbed the “climate wars”.

Despite its growing vulnerability to climate-linked natural disasters, Australia remains one of the world’s biggest exports of gas and thermal coal.

The peer-reviewed research was published in the Nature Communications journal, Earth & Environment.

Australia has committed to cutting carbon emissions by 43% by 2030 from 2005 levels, on a path to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions per person are among the highest in the world at 15.3 tonnes, surpassing U.S. levels, World Bank figures show.

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