An independent review into Australia’s carbon offset program that concluded the scheme was “fundamentally well designed” but recommended major changes has been criticised by the academic that first raised the concerns.
The review led by former chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb was released on Monday after a six-month process that took into account around 220 written submissions, as well as several follow-up meetings and site visits.
While the report acknowledges that “the integrity of the scheme has been called into question”, particularly through claims that abatement levels are overstated rendering the policy ineffective, the panel said it was also “also provided with evidence to the contrary”.
Among the several possible reasons for the “polar-opposite views”, the report suggests that a lack of transparency has meant “third parties cannot access the relevant data and so different conclusions can be drawn, and all genuine”.
“Notwithstanding the criticisms, the panel concludes that the scheme was fundamentally well designed when introduced. Nevertheless, after 11 years of operation, the scheme can be improved – applying knowledge gained through implementation or practical experience is the story of continuous improvement,” the report said.
The review made 16 recommendations to “clarify governance, improve transparency, facilitate positive project outcomes and co-benefits, and enhance confidence in the integrity and effectiveness of the scheme” , which the federal government has agreed to in principle.
The recommendations include replacing the Emissions Reduction Assurance Committee (ERAC) with a new Carbon Abatement Integrity Committee (CAIC) independent of the Clean Energy Regulator (CER) to “restore trust and confidence in the [Australian Carbon Credit Units] scheme” and amending legislation to ensure data on carbon estimation areas is made public by default.
On Tuesday, Professor Andrew Macintosh, who was chair of the ERAC between 2015 and 2021 and blew the whistle on the scheme last year, slammed the findings of the report. He told ABC Radio that there are a “number of issues in the review that just don’t make any sense”.
“They’re saying that there needs to be significant changes to key methods, but there’s nothing wrong with them. My favourite one is that they’re saying that one of the main methods landfill gas needs to be changed to essentially to improve integrity, but it should be up to the proponents to choose whether they opt for those high integrity rules,” he said.
“But I think the main thing for us is that the panel has not presented any analysis or evidence to to support its conclusions, that there’s nothing essentially wrong with the scheme.”
He also noted that “there’s large parts of the industry, indeed the largest players that are responsible for almost 50 per cent of the carbon credits issued to date, that support our conclusion”.
“There’s major problems and they are working with us to find solutions, and this report is going to stand in the way of finding those solutions,” Professor Macintosh said.
Professor Macintosh and a team of researchers released a series of research papers from the Australian National University in March 2022 that slammed the integrity of the ACCUs. At the time, Professor Macintosh said “the available data suggests 70 to 80 per cent of the ACCUs issued to these projects are devoid of integrity – they do not represent real and additional abatement”.
He was particularly concerned by projects involving avoided deforestation, human-induced regeneration (HIR) of native forests, and the combustion of methane from landfills.
While the report recommends that no new avoided deforestation projects will be registered, the report said that the “HIR method is sound – it meets the [Offsets Integrity Standards] and is administered by a robust regulatory framework”.
It also said landfill methane “collection and use or flaring is a successful mitigation strategy”. The report’s recommendations included suggestions to improve the HIR and landfill gas methods.
Australia Institute executive director Dr Richard Denniss, who previously described the scheme as “a joke”, said the review will “add to the confusion about the role, integrity, and future of carbon credits in Australian climate policy”.
“Unfortunately, Professor Chubb’s review is silent about the most important issues facing our Parliament and our climate, namely how many dodgy carbon credits are still circulating in the Australian economy and how can we recognise them?” Dr Denniss said.
“Carbon credits will be central to the Albanese Government’s Safeguard Mechanism, which it hopes to legislate in the coming months. Without so much as an estimate of how many dodgy carbon credits are currently circulating in the economy from this review, it seems the safest way to proceed is to prevent the use of ACCUs in the government’s new scheme.”
Dr Denniss also argued that the review ignores the findings of an Academy of Science report commissioned by the panel that identified flaws in four methods used to verify carbon emission abatements and create ACCUs.
Greenpeace head of advocacy and strategy Glenn Walker welcomed the recommendations to improve governance and transparency of ACCUs but said it overlooked concerns that HIR did not provide real carbon abatement.
“Big polluting corporations, including coal and gas companies buy carbon offsets to avoid and delay actually reducing or removing harmful greenhouse gas emissions in their own operations,” Mr Walker said.
“The Chubb Review into carbon offsetting has failed to address the scam of a key ACCU method. Until this sham is removed from the system or fundamentally overhauled, emissions won’t actually be going down.”
Australian Academy of Science president Professor Chennupati Jagadish welcomed the recommendations of the report and reiterated the importance of “credible, high integrity, and effective carbon offsets system”.
“Both emissions reduction and emissions removal are urgently needed for Australia and the planet,” Professor Jagadish said.
“Australians need to have confidence that our systems for emissions reduction and emissions removal are effective and have high integrity. Australian emissions reduction and removal requires solutions designed, implemented, and verified by Australian scientists.”
Releasing the review on Monday, energy and climate change minister Chris Bowen said the report’s recommendations would “help ensure Australia’s carbon crediting scheme has the highest integrity, and contributes to achieving Australia’s emission targets”.
“Now this panel has not tried to please everyone. There will be some people that say this panel has gone too far. There will be some people who say it has gone not far enough. That’s understood. But it’s a substantial piece of work. It’s informed by the best science and by the best evidence,” Mr Bowen told reporters.
Legislation for the introduction of new safeguard mechanism carbon credits is currently before parliament. Mr Bowen wants the scheme to commence on July 1 and expects to release the draft design of the scheme imminently.
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