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On the misuse of nature-based carbon ‘offsets’

April 7, 2021
News item image Nature-based solutions (NbS*) are being misused for greenwashing
  1. Nature-based solutions (NbS*) are being misused for greenwashing. Promoting NbS as carbon ‘offsets’ while continuing business as usual in fossil fuel use is not a solution to climate change. In fact, it can encourage continued or even increased fossil fuel consumption leading to more emissions overall and can distract from the need for systemic change and a transition to a nature-positive economy [1].
  2. NbS can make an important contribution to reaching net-zero emissions, but only if combined with dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. by burning less fossil fuel). Well-designed NbS, including the vital protection of carbon stored in intact ecosystems, play a key role in climate change mitigation as well as supporting other societal goals such as climate change adaptation, economic recovery and biodiversity conservation [2,3]. However, if they are not combined with rapid emission reductions, then impacts of climate change such as fires, droughts and disease will cause the carbon stored in ecosystems to be released back into the atmosphere, leading to further acceleration of climate change [4,5].
  3. Poor quality nature-based ‘offsets’ may have limited or negative effects on climate change mitigation as well as adverse impacts on biodiversity. Poorly planned carbon offset schemes, such as inappropriate tree planting on natural grasslands and peatlands, can add more carbon to the atmosphere than they take up (as carbon-rich soils are disturbed) [6-8]. There can also be negative impacts on biodiversity as the many species that depend on these naturally open habitats are lost [9,10].
  4. Poor quality nature-based ‘offsets’ can lead to human rights abuses. Some projects have been implemented without regard to the legal or customary land use rights of local people [11,12]. When this occurs, carbon offsetting can shift the burden of reducing emissions from wealthy countries, companies or individuals (who have contributed the most to climate change) to vulnerable people in the Global South (who have contributed the least) [13]. Furthermore, projects that are not led by or co-implemented with local people and fail to bring social benefits are less likely to be maintained as carbon stores in the long term [10,14].
  5. Fossil fuel extraction is often socially and ecologically destructive [15-17]. Using NbS to ‘offset’ the use of fossil fuels distracts attention from addressing these harmful impacts on people and the environment.

For further information on policy guidelines on how to implement successful, sustainable NbS that avoid social and environmental pitfalls please visit www.nbsguidelines.info and read our paper on getting the message right on nature-based solutions; for guidance criteria on how to implement NbS with integrity visit IUCN’s Global Standard for NbS.

*NbS are ways of working with nature to address societal challenges, providing benefits for human well-being and biodiversity. They are actions that involve the protection, restoration or management of natural and semi-natural ecosystems; the sustainable management of aquatic systems and working lands such as croplands or timberlands; or the creation of novel ecosystems in and around cities.

Download PDF – On the misuse of nature-based carbon ‘offsets’.


1.     Seddon, N., Smith, A., Smith, P., Key, I., Chausson, A., Girardin, C., House, J., Srivastava, S. and Turner, B., 2021. Getting the message right on nature‐based solutions to climate change. Global Change Biology, 27(8), pp.1518-1546. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15513

2.     Griscom, B.W., Busch, J., Cook-Patton, S.C., Ellis, P.W., Funk, J., Leavitt, S.M., Lomax, G., Turner, W.R., Chapman, M., Engelmann, J. and Gurwick, N.P., 2020. National mitigation potential from natural climate solutions in the tropics. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 375(1794), p.20190126. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2019.0126

3.     Chausson, A., Turner, B., Seddon, D., Chabaneix, N., Girardin, C.A., Kapos, V., Key, I., Roe, D., Smith, A., Woroniecki, S. and Seddon, N., 2020. Mapping the effectiveness of nature‐based solutions for climate change adaptation. Global Change Biology, 26(11), pp.6134-6155. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15310

4.     IPCC, 2018. Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Retrieved from: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

5.     Lovejoy, T.E. and Nobre, C., 2018. Amazon tipping point. Science Advances, 4(2). https://10.1126/sciadv.aat2340

6.     Brown, I., Castellazzi, M., & Feliciano, D. 2014. Comparing path dependence and spatial targeting of land use in implementing climate change responses. Land, 3, 850–873. https://doi.org/10.3390/land3030850

7.     Friggens, N. L., Hester, A. J., Mitchell, R. J., Parker, T. C., Subke, J.‐A., & Wookey, P. A. 2020. Tree planting in organic soils does not result in net carbon sequestration on decadal timescales. Global Change Biology, 26, 5178–5188. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15229

8.     Dass, P., Houlton, B.Z., Wang, Y. and Warlind, D., 2018. Grasslands may be more reliable carbon sinks than forests in California. Environmental Research Letters, 13(7), p.074027. https://10.1088/1748-9326/aacb39

9.     Veldman, J.W., Overbeck, G.E., Negreiros, D., Mahy, G., Le Stradic, S., Fernandes, G.W., Durigan, G., Buisson, E., Putz, F.E. and Bond, W.J., 2015. Where tree planting and forest expansion are bad for biodiversity and ecosystem services. BioScience, 65(10), pp.1011-1018. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biv118

10.   Fleischman, F., Basant, S., Chhatre, A., Coleman, E.A., Fischer, H.W., Gupta, D., Güneralp, B., Kashwan, P., Khatri, D., Muscarella, R. and Powers, J.S., 2020. Pitfalls of tree planting show why we need people-centered natural climate solutions. BioScience, 70(11), pp.947-950. https://doi:10.1093/biosci/biaa094

11.   Cavanagh, C. and Benjaminsen, T.A., 2014. Virtual nature, violent accumulation: The ‘spectacular failure’ of carbon offsetting at a Ugandan National Park. Geoforum, 56, pp.55-65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.06.013

12.   Barletti, J.P.S. and Larson, A.M., 2017. Rights abuse allegations in the context of REDD+ readiness and implementation. Center for International Forestry Research. http://www.jstor.com/stable/resrep16247

13.   Hickel, J., 2020. Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary. The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(9), pp.e399-e404. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30196-0

14.   Fa, J. E. et al. (2019). Importance of Indigenous Peoples’ lands for the conservation of Intact Forest Landscapes. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2148

15.   Healy, N., Stephens, J.C. and Malin, S.A., 2019. Embodied energy injustices: Unveiling and politicizing the transboundary harms of fossil fuel extractivism and fossil fuel supply chains. Energy Research & Social Science, 48, pp.219-234. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.09.016

16.   Bruederle, A. and Hodler, R., 2019. Effect of oil spills on infant mortality in Nigeria. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(12), pp.5467-5471. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1818303116

17.   Beyer, J., Trannum, H.C., Bakke, T., Hodson, P.V. and Collier, T.K., 2016. Environmental effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: a review. Marine pollution bulletin, 110(1), pp.28-51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.06.027