New questions are being raised about Australian councils’ use of international projects to offset local carbon emissions, following a Guardian investigation which found 90% of rainforest credits issued by a leading company were probably worthless.

Research on Verra, a global leader in the rapidly growing voluntary offset market, found that the majority of rainforest offset credits were likely “ghost credits” and do not represent true carbon reductions.

The company strongly disputes the findings of the studies, has vigorously defended its projects and disputed the methods used to undermine their credibility, saying they cannot grasp the true impact of the projects on the ground. They say this explains the difference between the credits he approves and the emission reductions estimated by scientists.

But the revelations have spurred criticism of public entities for using offsets rather than focusing on reducing their own emissions.

Fifteen local governments in Australia, including those in central Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, trade offsets through Verra’s registry platform, spending millions of dollars to claim carbon neutral status.

While the vast majority are not the rainforest credits that were the subject of the Guardian’s investigation, and its findings do not apply to them, they are primarily for overseas-based projects, which raises questions about why local governments aren’t spending that money trying to reduce their own emissions.

Brisbane City Council, Australia’s largest local government, spent $6 million last year to offset its emissions, including 130,000 tonnes of carbon emissions for a landfill gas recovery project and power generation in China.

Lily O’Neill, senior climate futures researcher at the University of Melbourne, described it as ‘a joke’ that an organization whose main function is to eliminate waste is spending money to reduce emissions of this same offshore activity.

O’Neill said offsetting was only valid as a last resort for emissions that could not be avoided.

“Does anybody [at council] go out and check that these carbon credits are being generated the way they say they will be? ” she says.

Brisbane City Council did not respond to questions from Guardian Australia about the due diligence it does on offshore offset projects.

The Labor opposition in Brisbane, led by Jared Cassidy, has long criticized the council’s compensation spending and described the Guardian investigation as a “red flag”.

“The only large-scale action a council can take to reduce city-wide emissions is to remove organics from the landfill,” he said. “You can’t just get away with it.

“If you want to make real change, you start in your own backyard.”

O’Neill said there are high-value offset projects that are working, including First Nations-led emissions reduction projects.

Brisbane was among the councils that funded some Australia-based initiatives, including Indigenous-led savannah fire management in Arnhem Land. But more than 90% of Brisbane City Council’s compensation funds have been spent on overseas projects.

Many other councils – including Woollahra, Moreland, Moonee Valley, Maroondah, Subiaco and Yarra – got 100% of their credits from overseas-based renewable energy projects.

Queensland University of Technology’s Professional Vice-Chancellor for Sustainability and Research Integrity Kerrie Wilson also advised local governments to “look at things in their own backyards” as they strive to achieve carbon neutrality.

“It’s difficult because it requires focusing on our internal policies, our own practices and our own behaviors rather than relying on compensation,” she said.

Wilson said QUT had invested in a solar farm in western Queensland with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality.

“You have more control, transparency, and assurance around integrity if it’s projects you can touch, feel, and identify,” she said.

Brisbane City Council did not respond to questions about whether it was reviewing its offset scheme, but said it was currently undertaking “a major food waste recycling pilot project involving 6,000 households in 30 suburbs”.

A spokesperson for the City of Sydney said that over the past few years it had “purchased an increasing share of high quality local carbon offsets” and aimed to have 100% high quality Australian regenerative offsets. quality by 2025.

The city of Melbourne is set to review its past and future offsets following the Chubb review, which this month recommended the creation of a new integrity body for Australia’s carbon credit scheme.

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