Many of Australia’s big climate polluters are buying Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) to continue enabling them to pollute as usual, says the Climate Council. For many businesses, they have become the first and only course of action rather than a last resort. Moreover, many of these carbon offset schemes do not represent any actual or additional emissions reductions and are therefore no substitute for genuine abatement. Now, as the government prepares to strengthen the law that regulates emissions from Australia’s biggest industrial polluters, this must change, says the Council

“For too long, major polluters like multinational coal, oil and gas giants have had a free ride on their harmful emissions. This must stop”, said Dr Jennifer Rayner, Head of Advocacy at the Climate Council. Without carbon scheme reform, “big industrial polluters like Woodside, Santos and Chevron will continue to rake in eye-watering profits while worsening climate change, which is supercharging the floods and fires that have ravaged communities across Australia and the world in recent years”, she said.

The Australia Institute echoes these risks of low-quality carbon credit schemes. “The dangers of climate change are just too high to take a risk on climate policies that rely on dodgy carbon credits”, said Dr Richard Denniss, Executive Director. “Allowing new coal mines and gas wells to open because they bought some low-integrity credits isn’t a path towards net zero, it’s a recipe for climate disaster.”

Cheap and easy offsets are a license to pollute

The integrity of Australia’s carbon offset schemes has been increasingly called into question over recent years as investigations claim many are fraudulent and ineffective. “What is occurring is a fraud on the environment, a fraud on taxpayers and a fraud on unwitting consumers”, said Professor Andrew Mcintosh last year. “People are getting credits for not clearing forests that were never going to be cleared, they are getting credits for growing trees that are already there, they are getting credits for growing forests in places that will never sustain permanent forests and they are getting credits for operating electricity generators at large landfills that would have operated anyway”, he said.

An investigation by the Guardian, Die Zeit and SourceMaterial has also cast fresh doubt on the effectiveness of these schemes. More than 90 per cent of the rainforest credits issued through a leading global verification organisation, Verra, were likely worthless and could make global heating worse, according to the analysis published in January 2023. As a result, Australian companies that use Verra rainforest credits to underpin carbon-neutral claims should check their effectiveness. Among those are Qantas, which allows customers to offset flight emissions, and Origin, for customers to offset emissions from electricity and gas use.

Carbon markets fit for purpose

While many scientists agree that carbon offsets can play a crucial but small role in decarbonisation, industry reforms are essential to generate high-quality and effective carbon credit credit schemes. “We want there to be more good credits that are really beneficial, and less scam credits. The problem with the carbon markets is that they’re a wild west, they’re unregulated”, climate scientist Simon Lewis told the Guardian.

Particularly, there is scope to vastly improve funding for forest protection.”We are clearly not doing a good job of getting cash to our forests”, said Lewis. “We need to think about that, particularly forests in the tropics – we should be funding these global assets. Ideally that should be separate from the carbon markets – through a levy on fossil fuels, or on international financial transactions, for example. But there are ways of funding forests through offsets. There should be a debate about all this.”