REDD+, which aims to reduce or prevent deforestation through the voluntary carbon market, is a complex and confusing area. In this FAQ, we answer some frequently asked questions.
For more details on CMW’s recommendations for forest conservation and REDD+, please see our full briefing: ‘Error log: exposing the methodological failures of REDD+ forestry projects’.
The preservation and sustainable management of forests are essential for tackling the twin biodiversity and climate crises. Forests, in particular primary or old growth forests, play a critical role in maintaining the health of the planet by supporting ecosystems that host the bulk of the planet’s terrestrial biodiversity.
Forests help to regulate local and regional climates, and also store substantial amounts of carbon. Around a fifth of the world’s population is dependent on forests for their livelihood.
Land use change is one of the biggest contributors to global carbon emissions, and as approximately 15 billion trees are cut down or degraded each year, this emits between 5-10 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.
REDD+ stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus conservation of forest carbon stocks, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.”
Discussions first emerged in 2005 led by Papua New Guinea at a meeting of the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, held in Montreal during the 11th Conferences of the Parties (COP11) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The idea was to create a potential results-based finance support mechanism aimed at reducing deforestation.
This led to the introduction in 2013 of the Warsaw REDD+ framework as a mechanism enabling nations to financially support the efforts of other countries in reducing deforestation. Notably, this framework did not permit the generation of carbon credits.
Alongside REDD+ negotiations under the UNFCCC, various public schemes such as the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD) and the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) of the World Bank were developed, while private actors, such as the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) also emerged.
Private Standards like the VCS, a popular voluntary scheme used by private organisations, generate carbon credits from forestry projects. These are often used for “offsetting” purposes. Generating and selling tradable carbon credits is significantly different from the initial concept of financing ecosystem services under the UNFCCC, specifically because purchasing carbon credits enables buyers to meet emission reduction targets, whereas under the UNFCCC mechanism this is not allowed.
REDD+ projects tend to be located in the Global South, such as in the tropical regions of Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa.
As demonstrated in the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project report ‘Quality assessment of REDD+ projects’, which was funded by Carbon Market Watch, the climate impact of REDD+ projects on the voluntary carbon market is overestimated, failing to guarantee accuracy and conservativeness, as well as to protect local communities and indigenous peoples from harm. The VCS standard fails to guarantee that credits are of high quality, and should not be used by companies to make misleading climate claims.
REDD+ project developers are overestimating the climate impact of their projects because they are granted large amounts of flexibility by standards when quantifying emission reductions. The flexibility allows them to select the most advantageous methodologies, and approaches within methodologies, to maximise carbon credit issuance.
The research we funded focuses on the five main problems that weigh down on the quality of REDD+ carbon credits, these include: baseline setting, leakage, forest carbon accounting, permanence, and safeguards.
Counterfactual baselines constitute a hypothetical, and often imprecise, estimation of how much deforestation would have occurred in the absence of a particular intervention or project.
Research funded by Carbon Market Watch found that project baselines are significantly overestimated, leading to the creation of carbon credits that do not represent a tonne of CO2. Previous research found that only 1 out of every 13 credits represents a real emission reduction.
Although a specific project may be able to successfully prevent deforestation in the project area, deforestation activity can simply relocate somewhere else, to other areas which are unprotected or less well protected. This shifting of deforestation activity is known as “leakage”. Despite the strong evidence that significant leakage occurs, projects typically underestimate that this is happening. Research found that half of REDD+ projects claim that they are not affected by any significant leakage.
For a REDD+ project, permanence refers to the idea that carbon stored in forests remains preserved for an extended and indefinite period of time. However, claiming to compensate fossil fuel emissions with biological carbon storage, such as in a forest, is to essentially shift carbon from a stable carbon store (i.e. fossil fuels) to more unstable natural storage, with a shorter lifespan, where the risk of carbon release is significantly greater. Research found that projects typically underestimate the risk of reversal due to natural phenomena (e.g. fires and pests) by a factor of more than 10.
Forest conservation projects often require close collaboration with local communities and indigenous peoples. The term ‘safeguards’ represents the social and environmental policies that are designed to prevent and/or mitigate and address negative impacts of projects on the well-being of the environment, and indigenous and local communities. Safeguards play a crucial role within REDD+ because projects carry significant risks of causing harm when not implemented carefully.
Currently, REDD+ safeguards under the VCS are opaque and provide limited guidance. This allows project developers and third party auditors to interpret them according to their own discretion.
Standards (such as VCS), those in charge of setting guidelines and criteria used to verify and certify the environmental integrity of projects, should address these concerns by implementing more stringent methodologies and policies that are aligned with the most up-to-date scientific research. Given the multiple uncertainties in measuring carbon credit quality, standards should adopt strict rules to measure the climate benefits of projects in a way that leads to conservative estimations of such benefits by project developers.
Fundamentally, alternative financial avenues should support forest conservation as it is impossible for short-term and unstable carbon sinks like forests to fully offset greenhouse gas emissions generated by the combustion of geologically stable fossil fuels. Companies and governments should continue to fund forest conservation, in particular for primary forests, but without relying on these investments to offset their emissions.
Photo: © Dr. Paulo Brando