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REDD+ carbon and deforestation cuts in Amazon overestimated: Study

  • A new study analyzed 12 REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) voluntary projects conducted in the Brazilian Amazon.
  • Researchers found that the projects’ claimed reductions in forest loss and carbon emissions were seriously overstated due to poorly set deforestation rate baselines that didn’t properly account for other successful forest loss reductions that were achieved separately by the Brazilian government.
  • To correct this problem in future, the researchers expressed the “need to better align project- and national-level carbon accounting,” while at the same time striking a balance between “controlling conservation investment risk and ensuring the environmental integrity of carbon emission offsets.”
  • Suggestions for achieving more reliable carbon accounting include: only taking into account the most recent years of deforestation, relying on more complex models that look at the price of agricultural commodities, and comparing deforestation to similar areas not involved in REDD+ projects.
The Brazilian Amazon in Mato Grosso state, Brazil. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

The reduction in levels of deforestation and carbon emissions attributable to Brazilian Amazon projects certified under a leading United Nations carbon-offset program have been seriously overstated, according to new research.

Analysis of 12 voluntary REDD+ projects (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), that have operated in the world’s largest rainforest since 2008, found that the claimed reductions in forest loss had failed to accurately set baselines for deforestation rates by not properly accounting for successful efforts made separately by the Brazilian government and other programs.

The research, carried out by a team of international researchers and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes that “the accepted methodologies for quantifying carbon credits overstate impacts on avoided deforestation and climate change mitigation.”

Using a number of publicly available deforestation datasets including PRODES and TerraClass (both operated by INPE, Brazil’s space agency), and MapBiomas (operated by Climate Observatory, a Brazilian NGO), the team analyzed deforestation across Brazilian states including Amazonas, Pará and Rondônia up until 2017. The researchers used a methodology called synthetic control, which compared the levels of deforestation in areas involved in the REDD+ program with levels in similar areas that were not involved in the program. According to the findings, cumulative deforestation was in fact higher in half of the REDD+ program areas.

“In general, the levels of deforestation were overestimated because they assume that historical deforestation rates — often based on the previous 10 years before project implementation — would continue over the next 10 years,” says Thales West, the study’s lead author and a forest carbon scientist for Scion — the New Zealand Forest Research Institute. “That is a strong assumption.”

In 2004, Brazil launched successful conservation reforms to reduce deforestation as part of the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm). But according to West’s research, the voluntary REDD+ projects failed to account for the “background” reductions in deforestation achieved by the national reforms and by other contributing factors. “When we isolated those impacts in our study, we found no general evidence suggesting that the REDD+ projects we evaluated have significantly contributed to the reduction of deforestation in their project areas,” he explains.

According to the recent study, part of the overestimation of the success of some REDD+ voluntary projects resulted from the fact that they didn’t properly take into account the success of a variety of Brazilian government programs that decreased deforestation over the same period. Image by Mongabay using data from INPE.

In the early 2000s, the average annual deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon was 19,000 square kilometers (7,300 square miles). But prior to the launch of the first voluntary REDD+ projects in the region in 2008, a massive deforestation prevention effort took place and those rates were reduced to around 6,000 square kilometers (about 2,300 square miles) in 2007. From 2004 to 2017, there was a drop of 75% in deforestation levels, according to the Brazilian government.

“It’s true that most of these projects have grossly overestimated the baseline,” says Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA) in Brazil. “They’re taking credit for what the project didn’t do. It undermines all of the efforts to reduce deforestation.”

According to Fearnside, however, it is important to distinguish between official REDD+ projects, which form part of the national framework, and the voluntary projects, which allow nonprofits and private companies to sell carbon credits to companies to offset their contribution to climate change; only voluntary projects were analyzed in the study. Unlike official REDD+ programs, grounded in federal law, the voluntary projects are “decentralized” and only subject to rules set by Verra, a leading carbon-offset scheme previously known as the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS).

“Obviously there are financial interests on all sides,” Fearnside says. “But particularly in these voluntary schemes, the people involved want to get the most money out of it they can, and the buyers want to get more credit for less money.”

That’s a serious problem because those strong incentives for reducing deforestation can influence results. However, Fearnside adds, those baselines for deforestation can be accurately calculated. “It is important to realize that it is possible to make baselines that are reasonable,” he points out. “But you have to find ways that [those calculations] can be institutionalized.” Ultimately, “we have to look at all sorts of ways of reducing emissions. If we don’t do something in the next few years it will be catastrophic.”

Satellite view of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Image courtesy of NASA.

The scientific community widely accepts that significant deforestation reductions will need to play a critical role in keeping global warming 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) below preindustrial levels to avoid disaster. According to the World Resources Institute, forests could provide almost a quarter of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed by 2030, and of all forest ecosystems the tropical forests store the most carbon.

REDD+ was initially proposed as a climate change mitigation mechanism that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by paying developing countries to keep their forests intact instead of cutting them down. But advocates and forest policy experts have in the past warned that the variable way the emissions-reductions savings are being calculated — a challenging task to begin with — and the likely possibility that reductions will not be permanent, could skew results and set a poor precedent for future REDD+ payouts.

Last year the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund (GCF) accepted the first proposal for REDD+ results-based payouts from Brazil, effectively paying the country for reducing its deforestation rates in 2014 and 2015. The GCF paid Brazil $96 million for around 19 million tons of estimated emissions reductions, despite warnings from critics over uncertain baseline measurements against which deforestation reductions were calculated.

“I think the implications are very serious,” adds West. “People and organizations buy VCS-certified credits from those [REDD+] projects because they believe they are offsetting their carbon emissions, but our results suggest that this is not the case.”

As a consequence, the researchers expressed the “need to better align project- and national-level carbon accounting,” while at the same time striking a balance between “controlling conservation investment risk and ensuring the environmental integrity of carbon emission offsets.”

A small waterfall in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Some suggestions for achieving more reliable carbon accounting in future include: only taking into account the most recent years of deforestation, relying on more complex models that look at the price of agricultural commodities, or comparing deforestation to similar areas not involved in projects.

Andres Susaeta Larrain, of the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation, who was not involved in the study, agrees that the findings confirm several criticisms of REDD+ programs, but with a caveat: “Now, does it mean that REDD+ [projects] are per se not worth pursuing?” he asks. “Not necessarily. What the findings suggest, in my opinion, is that certain REDD+ programs can pursue the goal of reducing CO2 emissions if they are effectively designed and implemented.”

“There is no such thing as the perfect method,” concludes West. “But [project carbon accounting] should be based on science, not political or monetary interests — even if that implies adding more complexity to already ‘complex’ REDD+ accounting methods.”


West, T.A.P., Börner J., Sills E.O, Kontoleon, A., Overstated carbon emission reductions from voluntary REDD+ projects in the Brazilian Amazon, PNAS September 29, 2020, 24188-24194.

Banner image: A scarlet macaw (Ara macao) in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

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In Defence of Voluntary REDD+ Forest Projects in Brazil —
A response to West et al, and to Peter Yeung’s Mongabay story

By David Swallow, REDD+ Specialist at CARBONEXT

A recent study published in the scientific journal PNAS entitled ”Overstated carbon emission reductions from voluntary REDD+ projects in the Brazilian Amazon” has prompted significant criticism of REDD+ (“reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation”) projects — private-sector forest conservation projects, operating on the voluntary carbon market today in Brazil and worldwide.

In reaction, Carbonext, a voluntary REDD+ project developer, has published a “Response to West et al. (2020).” (A general public response can be found here, while a full technical response can be found here, in which Carbonext warns against the dangers of devaluing REDD+, especially in the face of mounting deforestation pressure in Brazil, and makes technical critiques of the PNAS study, which may impact many of its claims.

Carbonext is a project developer on the voluntary carbon market, attending to the needs of companies and individuals in the fields of:

• Climate change and GHG emissions offsetting;
• Buying and selling carbon credits;
• Developing projects that generate carbon credits.

Our portfolio consists primarily of REDD+ projects located in the Brazilian Amazon, summing to 800,000 hectares, and counting. The company arose from the desire to make a difference and to bring about change. An innovative vision of the future with roots in the past contributes to maintaining tropical forests, and the communities that depend on them, intact.


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