The UN has long championed the need for urgent climate solutions. It has claimed to be at least 95% “climate neutral” every year since 2018, largely through the use of carbon credits.
The New Humanitarian teamed up with Mongabay to investigate the UN’s claims of climate neutrality. In an investigation that took a year and spanned multiple countries, reporters obtained details about carbon credits purchased by 33 UN entities, representing more than 75% of its reported offset portfolio since 2012.
More than a dozen of the projects that issued the UN’s carbon credits were linked to reports of environmental damage, displacement, or health concerns. Others were deemed worthless by a number of leading climate experts.
The UN claims to be almost entirely climate neutral, yet that claim is based on buying millions of carbon offset credits that experts say do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, The New Humanitarian and Mongabay found in a year-long investigation.
More than 2.7 million UN carbon credits — 40% of those reporters were able to analyse — were issued by hydropower and wind projects, which climate experts say shouldn’t be used to offset emissions as the schemes don’t need income from credits to be viable.
In addition, at least 13 carbon offsetting projects that received UN funds have been linked to reports of environmental damage, displacement, or health problems — all issues the UN routinely works to prevent or mitigate.
“It looks like there is little credibility in the UN’s [climate neutrality] claim based on the carbon credits that they have used,” said Gilles Dufrasne, of Carbon Market Watch, a watchdog group, referring to the high number of large-scale wind and hydropower credits in the UN portfolio. “I would qualify these as junk credits.”
The investigation, which spanned multiple countries, is one of the first to peer into the UN’s carbon offset portfolio, which has not previously been made public.
Reporters also found that many UN entities had little knowledge or oversight of the carbon credits they were purchasing. Many of those credits were also purchased at rock-bottom prices — bargains that experts say should raise red flags.
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment David Boyd called the investigation’s findings “very troubling” and urged the UN to launch an independent inquiry into its offset purchases, with results to be made public.
Most UN entities referred questions about their carbon credit purchases to the UN’s climate change oversight body the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat. UNFCCC did not respond to detailed questions about this investigation’s findings but said UN entities purchase credits “randomly” and “do not discriminate between them”.
The UN is hardly the biggest offender when it comes to claims of climate neutrality or greenhouse gas emissions.
Roughly 100 companies are responsible for more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, while a recent study of climate neutrality claims from 25 multinationals found most were overstated. British Airways and Delta Air Lines, for example, have faced particularly stringent criticism over their claims.
Still, climate researchers and environmental advocates say the UN’s offsetting practices undermine its leadership on efforts to slow the pace of global warming.
Aside from overseeing multiple climate treaties, the UN is also a steward in helping governments meet climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, organising the annual COP climate conferences. This year’s COP28 starts on 30 November in Dubai.
Even as millions of credits in the UN’s own portfolio fail to meet high standards, it has been urging other organisations to do better. Last year, a “high-level” UN expert group advised organisations to buy only “high-integrity credits” and to refrain from counting those credits as their own emission reductions.
“I do think it matters what the UN does,” said Joe Romm, senior research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media. “The UN is effectively overseeing the world’s effort to address the climate problem.”
The UN set out to become climate neutral in 2007, when leaders agreed to reduce the world body’s emissions “to the extent possible”.
In 2014, then-UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon proclaimed: “We will be climate neutral by 2020.” The UN defines climate neutrality as balancing emissions so they are equal to or less than what the planet naturally absorbs.
Other initiatives were also undertaken — pushing for renewable energy sources, hosting meetings online, and flying economy class instead of business — but none of those measures managed to bring significant emissions reductions, possibly due to increased staffing during the same five-year period.
In 2019, for example, the UN’s annual reported emissions were roughly equal to what they were in 2014: more than 2 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.
In 2020, the UN’s reported emissions dropped below 1.5 million metric tonnes, but the reductions were largely attributed to travel restrictions and remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And these figures only represent the emissions the UN actually includes.
A 2021 investigation by The New Humanitarian found that the UN failed to count all of its emissions, including indirect emissions — greenhouse gases emitted up and down its supply chain. Without knowing the UN’s total emissions, claims of climate neutrality, or even of emissions reductions, become difficult to prove.
“The UN’s neutrality claim lacks credibility and is particularly inappropriate coming from an agency overseeing global efforts to combat climate change,” said Lindsay Otis, a policy expert at Carbon Market Watch. “The [UN] should stop making misleading neutrality claims.”
The UN says many of its greenhouse gas emissions are unavoidable and need to be offset — at least in the short term.
But some other organisations have already forsworn carbon offsetting altogether. Last year, Médecins Sans Frontières published a roadmap for halving its emissions by 2030 without relying on carbon credits.
Oxfam UK, which does buy carbon credits, says it doesn’t use them to claim climate neutrality. Among commercial entities, both Gucci and Nestlé recently agreed to abandon “carbon neutral” claims on some brands.
Additionally, the EU has taken steps to prohibit corporate claims of climate neutrality that are based on unsubstantiated or unverified carbon offsetting programmes.
Switzerland’s advertising regulator also recently told the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) to refrain from describing the 2022 Qatar World Cup as climate neutral after research found the claim was largely based on offsets from renewable energy projects.
Responding to the UN’s reliance on these types of credits, Romm said: “Their [climate neutrality] claims would be ruled false in any court in the world… They’re utterly meaningless.”
But the UN is largely exempt from regulatory oversight, and because of its many entities and siloed operations, its offset portfolio has remained unexamined.
However, reporters were able to trace the origins of more than 6.6 million credits, representing more than 75% of the UN’s entire 2012-2022 offset portfolio, according to calculations based on the UN’s annual emissions reports and purchase records provided by UN entities.
The credits were issued by some 700 projects and purchased by 33 of the 48 UN entities that claim to be climate neutral. The 33 groups spent nearly $8.5 million on carbon credits between 2012 and 2022, according to data the UN provided.
Fifteen entities failed to respond or declined to share information. Several of those that provided offset purchase records did not say how much the credits cost. Eighteen entities told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay they didn’t have their own purchase records and referred requests to the UNFCCC secretariat.
Do no harm
Of the credits the UN purchased between 2012 and 2022, more than 350,000 were issued by at least 13 projects that were linked to reports of environmental destruction, forced displacement, or health problems in communities near the projects.
UN entities spent more than $400,000 on these credits, according to information provided by the entities that made the purchases.
For instance, the UN Secretariat — the UN’s administrative arm headed by Secretary-General António Guterres — bought nearly 4,000 credits in 2021 from the Okhla waste-to-energy plant, an Indian project that has sparked environmental and health concerns.
Located in New Delhi’s Sukhdev Vihar neighbourhood, it claims to reduce emissions by burning organic waste to heat pressure boilers that drive steam turbines and generate electricity.
Community residents, however, have challenged the project in the courts for more than a decade, claiming the plant’s incinerators are fed mixed waste, including plastic, rather than organic waste, causing them to emit toxic pollution near their homes.
Air pollution tests submitted to an Indian environmental court in 2020 confirmed emissions of harmful particles well above the permissible limit, according to research by the New Delhi-based Centre for Financial Accountability.
Chanchal Pal, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at the Apollo 24/7 hospital, located around 200 metres from the Okhla plant, said she believes cases of bronchitis, lung diseases, asthma, nasal polyps, and sinus problems among people living in the area are linked to pollution from the plant.
“When plastics are burnt, it has carcinogenic effects on human health — this is a scientific fact,” Pal told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay.
Residents have also pointed out that the plant’s 40-metre proximity to some homes violates government guidelines requiring landfills to be at least 500 metres from residential areas.
Ranjit Devraj, a Sukhdev Vihar resident and former member of a Supreme Court committee on waste management in Delhi, said locals live in fear of boiler explosions that could flatten their homes and claim lives.
“It is an environmental disaster in the making because this plant is supposed to be some sort of flagship for a policy of incinerating waste in India,” Devraj said.
Neither the Timarpur Okhla Waste Management Company, which the UN lists as a project operator, nor site manager Sandeep Dutt, responded to requests for comment.
At a glance: What’s behind the UN’s climate neutrality claims?
The UN has claimed to be at least 95% “climate neutral” every year since 2018, largely through the use of carbon credits.
Reporters tracked down the origins of more than 6.6 million credits that 33 UN entities purchased between 2012 and 2022 for nearly $8.5 million. Fifteen entities failed to respond or declined to share information, while several did not disclose their spending.
Of those credits, more than 2.7 million were issued by wind and hydropower projects, which many experts say fail to represent real emissions reductions. Offset certifiers like Gold Standard and Verra have restricted such projects due to quality concerns.
More than 350,000 credits were issued by 13 projects that have been implicated in displacement, environmental damage, and health concerns.
The UN spent an average of roughly $1.30 on each carbon credit, which experts say indicates low quality and is well below the norm.
Some NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières have sworn off carbon offsets in favour of direct reductions. Others, like Oxfam UK, which still buys offset credits, say they do not treat the purchases as reductions to their emissions or use them to claim climate neutrality.
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), meanwhile, spent roughly $100,000 in 2021 on nearly 29,000 credits for Brazil’s Teles Pires hydropower plant — a project accused of destroying forests and Indigenous lands, and of harming biodiversity and fisheries.
“Teles Pires flooded the Sete Quedas rapids, which are the holiest site for the Munduruku people. It’s where the spirits of the respected elders go after they die,” said Philip Fearnside, a biologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia.
The project has also been linked to greenhouse gas emissions that undermine its offsetting claims.
A 2018 study published by the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil calculated that deforestation and decomposition of flooded forests caused by the dam would add more than 60 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere — more than double the amount it claims to reduce through the sale of carbon credits.
Neither WFP nor the Brazilian energy companies EQAO and Hidrelétrica Teles Pires, which the UN lists as the two participants in the project, responded to requests for comment.
More than 1 million credits in the UN’s portfolio were issued by large-scale hydropower projects, which experts have criticised for decades for being ineffective at reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
When asked about these purchases, multiple UN entities either did not respond or deferred responsibility to UNFCCC.
Most UN entities rely on UNFCCC to procure offset credits on their behalf — a reliance that raises questions about what responsibility, if any, UN entities have in conducting their own due diligence when vetting and buying carbon credits.
“The [UN] Secretariat does not choose the projects,” said UN Secretariat spokesperson Florencia Soto Niño. “These are allocated through UNFCCC and they have certain criteria for their selection. I suggest you reach out to UNFCCC on this matter.”
UN officials told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay that most UN entities outsource the procurement of carbon credits to UNFCCC, which in turn buys them from the Adaptation Fund.
The Adaptation Fund receives credits from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a UN-run offset certifier, and sells them to fund projects in countries trying to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change.
Moses Osani, a spokesperson for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said the credits are “randomly assigned” by the Adaptation Fund to UNFCCC and then assigned again by UNFCCC to the purchasing UN entities.
Eighteen UN entities initially told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay they didn’t know which projects issued their credits, though most eventually requested records from UNFCCC and shared them with reporters.
“We do not have info ourselves about the specific projects where the money [was] invested,” said Marina Maiero, Technical Officer for Climate Change and Health at the World Health Organization, which did not provide transaction records to reporters.
In theory, each carbon credit certified by the CDM should represent the reduction of one metric tonne of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Additionality is generally what experts use to judge the quality of a carbon credit.
For a project to issue high-quality credits, it needs to prove that it would not have been built without earnings from carbon credit sales.
If a project is supported by government policy, if it is common practice, or if it is profitable without carbon credit earnings, then any reductions it achieves likely did not rely on those earnings, and are therefore not additional.
In other words, a carbon credit buyer, such as the UN, cannot “take credit” for emission reductions that would have occurred anyway.
“If the money that you spend for the offset doesn’t have an impact on the outcome, then you can’t claim any credit for the outcome,” said Romm, the University of Pennsylvania climate researcher. “I don’t know why the UN would still be buying wind and hydro.”
This investigation found that, in doing so, the UN may also have violated its own guidelines.
Two UN officials told reporters there were limits on UN purchases of large-scale hydropower credits.
Osani, the UNEP spokesperson, said the mix of credits offered by the Adaptation Fund “excludes large-scale hydro” credits.
Dragoslav Jovanovic, head of the Procurement, Travel and General Services Unit at UNFCCC, said “certain large hydro” projects are meant to be excluded from what the Adaptation Fund can sell.
While some of the 1 million large-scale hydropower credits in the UN’s portfolio were purchased from other carbon credit markets, almost 900,000 were assigned to UN entities by UNFCCC, according to records UNFCCC and other entities provided, suggesting that unless they were using a different threshold, the exclusion was either being ignored or non-existent.
When asked whether large hydropower projects were meant to be excluded from UN purchases, Adaptation Fund spokesperson Matthew Trevor Pueschel declined to provide information, saying “all such transactions are proprietary”. He later added that all credits sold by the Adaptation Fund “are available for purchase in principle”.
Neither Osani nor Jovanovic responded to further questions on why almost 900,000 credits from large-scale hydropower projects were not excluded from UN purchases.
UNFCCC’s press office confirmed that “certain large hydro” projects were previously excluded from the Adaptation Fund’s credits but said “this criterion no longer applies”. They did not provide details on the threshold for exclusion or when it was in effect.
This investigation found that UN entities purchased carbon credits for large-scale hydropower projects every year from 2014 to 2021.
While some experts questioned the effectiveness of the wind and hydropower credits in the UN’s portfolio generally, The New Humanitarian and Mongabay sought additional analysis from the London-based carbon credit ratings agency BeZero Carbon.
BeZero provides risk-based ratings, research, and analysis on carbon credits. Although it doesn’t specifically rate credits associated with UN entities, BeZero granted reporters access to its ratings platform to see its analysis of 23 projects that happen to be found in the UN’s portfolio.
Out of almost 300,000 credits the UN bought from these 23 projects, more than 60% were issued by projects that, according to BeZero, have a moderately low, low, or very low likelihood of achieving their stated greenhouse gas reductions.
UN entities spent almost $750,000 on these lowly rated projects. Wind and hydropower projects are among the lowest-rated.
For instance, BeZero gave a low rating to the Allain Duhangan Hydroelectric Project — an Indian dam that provided more than 39,000 credits to the UN Secretariat in 2021.
According to BeZero’s analysis, the preponderance of hydropower in the same region as the Allain Duhangan project “contrasts with the project’s claim to be first of its kind”, suggesting it would likely have been built regardless of revenue from carbon credits.
BeZero also gave low ratings to three Chinese wind power projects that supplied more than 24,000 credits to the UN Secretariat, WFP, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
All three ratings point out that wind power projects are financially viable on their own and are supported by governments, meaning they do not rely on carbon credit revenue and are therefore unlikely to be additional.
UNDP sustainability coordinator Anne Fernqvist told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay that BeZero’s ratings are statements of opinion, adding that UNDP’s climate neutrality claim remains valid even without credits from the lowly rated Chinese wind project.
Soto Niño, the UN Secretariat spokesperson, deferred questions about the Secretariat’s purchases to UNFCCC, which did not respond to questions about specific projects.
WFP did not respond to requests for comment on its purchases.
Several experts who reviewed the UN’s offset portfolio suggested the UN could have avoided the most common risks associated with carbon credits by selecting project types that are known to offer additionality and don’t come with unintended problems.
More than half the credits reporters managed to trace in the UN’s portfolio, however, were issued by projects categorised as high-risk by the Carbon Offset Guide, indicating that they are among the least likely to have a meaningful climate impact.
The guide, published in 2019 by the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute, a Washington DC-based NGO that provides education on greenhouse gas accounting, categorises project types as low, medium, or high-risk, with low-risk project types being the most likely to be additional.
The New Humanitarian and Mongabay found that 51% of the credits in the records the UN provided were issued by high-risk projects, while only 25% were issued by low-risk projects, and another 24% were issued by medium-risk projects.
“The approach of a sensible [organisation] should be to check — what type of credits am I buying?” said Axel Michaelowa, a climate policy researcher at the University of Zurich and senior founding partner of the Perspectives Climate Group consulting firm.
Michaelowa pointed out that the fact that the UN purchased small numbers of credits from hundreds of different projects — rather than large purchases from a small number of reputable projects — suggests it wasn’t selective about its purchases.
“This is a clear indication that there is low quality control,” he told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay in a phone interview.
Dufrasne, of Carbon Market Watch, said that in addition to conducting more due diligence before buying credits, the UN should also stop claiming to be climate neutral.
“Where it becomes problematic is if those [offset] purchases create a licence to communicate false statements, such as ‘climate neutrality’,” he told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay.
Romm, the University of Pennsylvania climate researcher, told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay in a phone interview: “It’d be better if the UN simply said: ‘We’re going to try to do what our own expert group said’,” referring to recommendations that offsets should not be used to claim reductions in an organisation’s emissions.
Romm added that low-cost carbon credits, such as those sold by the CDM, tend also to be low-quality. Other climate experts say higher-cost credits are often associated with projects that have better environmental, social, and economic results.
Carbon credits can sell for more than $100 each, with common prices between 2021 and 2023 ranging from $2 to $15.
The UN spent an average of about $1.30 on each of the credits it disclosed to reporters. WFP bought more than half its credits — 500,000 — for just 12 euro cents each, while UNFCCC bought nearly 60,000 for 12 US dollar cents each, according to records provided.
“Anything that’s in the $3 to $4 price range… you get what you pay for. The reason [CDM credits] are cheap is because they’re not genuine,” Romm said.
As media scrutiny of offsetting practices intensifies, some organisations have stopped buying carbon credits altogether and are instead investing in reducing their emissions directly.
Last year, the UK-based airline EasyJet announced it would not buy offset credits as part of its latest plan to reduce emissions. The plan instead focuses on using more sustainable fuel and more efficient planes. A 2021 joint investigation by The Guardian and Greenpeace revealed that the airline had been purchasing flawed carbon credits.
Victorine Che Thoener, senior strategic adviser at Greenpeace International, told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay that buying offset credits gives the false impression that governments, organisations, and consumers can buy their way out of the climate crisis without cutting their own emissions.
Theoner added: “Without truly functional climate procedures, the UNFCCC’s legitimacy is at risk — as is a liveable climate for us all.”
Jacob Goldberg reported from Thailand and LeopoldSalzenstein reported from France. Sarah Brown reported from Brazil and Shaz Syed from India. Graphics and illustrations by Eva Hilhorst, Marc Fehr, Léopold Salzenstein, and Sofia Kuan. Additional reporting and editing by Paisley Dodds in London.
Banner image: Laborers at Land Rover’s wind energy project purposed for carbon finance in India. Inage by Land Rover Our Planet via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).
Editor’s note, 9/13/2023: An earlier version of this article misstated the job title of Marina Maiero at the World Health Organization.