- The Guardian recently published an article questioning the effectiveness of forest carbon offsets, immediately followed by another in Die Zeit about ‘phantom offsets.’
- These criticisms are not without precedent: carbon offsetting is often presented either as a panacea or as corporate greenwashing that distracts from the difficult task of reducing actual greenhouse gas emissions.
- But as two leaders from CIFOR-ICRAF argue in a new commentary, “It is neither one nor the other. It is a tool. No particular policy instrument stands out as a ‘silver bullet,’ but improving the coherence and complementarity of the policy mix across government levels can enhance the effectiveness of policies.”
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.
To achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, we must drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, decreasing our reliance on coal, oil and gas by 90%. Not all sectors of the economy can be decarbonized fully or quickly, however. In those cases, scientifically sound, equitable and transparent forest carbon offset programs can play a role – while also providing other benefits.
From retail chains and tech firms to individual travelers, a growing number of companies and individuals seeking to shrink their carbon footprints are turning to offsets: mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in one place by increasing carbon storage or avoiding emissions in another.
We know that forests and trees are keys to mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change. Besides storing carbon effectively, they are home to a diverse array of plant and animal species, and they help to regulate the Earth’s climate by releasing water vapor and absorbing sunlight. Forests also help to protect against soil erosion and flooding and provide resources such as timber and non-timber products. When woodlands are integrated into agricultural areas, they help farmers increase biodiversity and mitigate climate impacts. As a result, they have become a popular carbon-offsetting strategy, including through the UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme.
But if you’ve been following climate news lately, you’ll know that forest or tree-based offsetting is not without critics. On 18 January, The Guardian published an article questioning the effectiveness of REDD+ and other forest carbon offsets, immediately followed on 19 January by an article in Die Zeit about phantom offsets and deceit.
Not a bullet, but a tool
The criticism is not without precedent. Carbon offsetting is often presented as either a panacea or as “greenwashing” which constitutes a dangerous distraction from the difficult task of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In reality, it is neither one nor the other. It is a tool. No particular policy instrument stands out as a ‘silver bullet,’ but improving the coherence and complementarity of the policy mix across government levels can enhance the effectiveness of policies – both individually and in combination.
Our purpose is not to take sides in this case, but rather to advocate for not ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater.’ Nature and people-based solutions are more important than ever now, as we face the challenge of cutting emissions almost in half by 2030, with the goal of reaching net zero by 2050. This goal is not yet out of reach, but it requires urgent – and well-informed – action.
A high-quality carbon offset project has several key traits. It must have an exclusive claim to its greenhouse gas reductions, meaning the reductions would not have happened without the project (called “additionality” because the reduction would not have occurred in the absence of offset credits). It must accurately calculate its greenhouse gas emissions and reductions. The project should be certified by a reputable offset standard. And the offset should cause no harm to local communities or environments, ensuring that social safeguards and biodiversity values are well respected.
What’s REDD+ worth for forests?
For more than a decade, our scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) have been studying how REDD+ is being implemented around the world, analyzing what works and what must be improved.
We developed a Global Comparative Study on REDD+, analyzing experiences in 22 tropical countries, which shows that local REDD+ initiatives have achieved limited but positive outcomes for forests. Impacts on well-being have been modest and mixed, but proved more likely to be positive when effective, efficient, and equitable incentives are included. These impacts depend on the scale of funding, pressure on forests, how financial incentives and benefit-sharing mechanisms are being structured, and, critically, the participation of women, Indigenous peoples and local communities.
Our research on REDD+ highlights the problems of limited rigorous impact assessment on REDD+ effectiveness. It calls for more systematic scientific study and encourages governments and projects to improve their monitoring, reporting and verification systems — a win for forests.
However, results-based systems are at risk of bias through ‘cherry picking’ numbers and the generation and use of information and data can be politicized by powerful agents of deforestation and forest degradation. Many carbon offsetting projects take place in remote areas where it can be difficult to monitor and verify the actual carbon sequestration taking place. Remote areas may also face lower risks of deforestation, leading to questions about whether the REDD+ schemes actually create true “additionality.”
Larger-scale implementation of such programs is constrained by a lack of funding, both public and private. Finance for REDD+ has mostly been provided by a small group of countries and multilateral institutions, and readiness funding is drying up. REDD+ countries and communities have shouldered much of the cost of putting REDD+ into practice but their contributions are not recognized. Results-based payment has not been the driving force it was expected to be, due to a lack of finance and other challenges, including questions of what to pay for, whom to pay, and how to set reference levels. And there is a risk that in their efforts to protect forests, REDD+ schemes could displace Indigenous or other traditional forest-dwelling communities, particularly in developing countries where land is often scarce.
While REDD+ is expected to create transformational change, it also requires transformative enabling conditions such as political wills to address drivers of deforestation and degradation, sufficient funding and financial incentives, inclusive decision-making processes, and transparent and accountable measurement, reporting and verification, plus social safeguards.
Since 2005, REDD+ has largely evolved as a concept, policy instrument and pilot, and we now have experiences and data – even if far from perfect – that offer lessons for us on how to better design and implement REDD+ to increase its impacts on the ground, and on the drivers of deforestation that must be addressed at higher levels – including land tenure insecurity and demand for globally traded commodities. Our research indicates that REDD+ can still play a role in mitigating the impacts of emissions and improving forest governance if it is well-designed and well-implemented, especially in sectors that cannot decarbonize quickly.
What might high-quality, effective forest carbon offsetting look like?
Well-designed and well-implemented forest carbon offsets can provide incentives for reducing deforestation and forest degradation and improve forest governance while encouraging support for the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities, especially women.
Key elements for forest-based solutions include:
- Protecting intact – and largely intact – forests to preserve biodiversity and ecosystem services. Indigenous peoples’ territories play a major role here, as they have proven very successful at keeping forests standing
- Managing production forests and plantations better, to provide much-needed materials that will make it possible to shift from a fossil-fuel-based to a bio-based economy, by developing replacements for materials that have a high carbon impact, such as cement and steel
- Increasing the presence of trees in agricultural lands through diverse agroforestry systems and providing stronger financial and social incentives for local people
- Restoring the vast amount of degraded land on our planet, to increase ecosystem-based services. Like other nature-based solutions, this must always be done in partnership with local communities in ways that are locally appropriate
- Ensuring participation of Indigenous peoples and local communities, and equitable benefit-sharing mechanisms
Each of these elements could become part of a program offering forest- or tree-based carbon offsets. At the same time, they represent a better way to care for our land, resulting not just in carbon storage, but also in a myriad of other benefits.
Just one piece of the puzzle
The bottom line is clear, however: We can’t offset our way out of the climate crisis.
We are like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, who needs to run endlessly to stay in the same place. We must continue to restore forests and peatlands, which are crucial for carbon storage, while also scaling up renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. Offset schemes can be a tool, but they must not become a pretext for continuing business as usual. Like the Red Queen, if we hope to achieve the Paris Agreement goal of holding average global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels, we must do more. We must run faster.
A shift in the current development paradigm, with stronger political will and more incentives to drop the ‘business-as-usual’ is required. ‘Rich’ countries and individuals should co-invest with local stakeholders in positive development trajectories for nature and people, and re-purpose the mind-boggling amounts of financial fluxes and incentives for unsustainable practices (fossil fuels, agriculture, military expenditures, etc.), towards a true stewardship economy.
Dr. Robert Nasi is the acting CEO of CIFOR-ICRAF, a global research and development organization with more than 75 years of experience in harnessing the power of trees, forests, and agroforestry landscapes to address the most pressing global challenges of our time – biodiversity loss, climate change, food security, livelihoods, and inequity. Dr. Pham Thu Thuy is a senior scientist who leads the Climate Change, Energy and Low-Carbon Development team at CIFOR-ICRAF. Her research focuses on the political economy of forest governance and climate change policies, including low-emission development strategies, payment for environmental services, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, addressing the poverty-environment nexus, environmental and social justice, sustainable wetlands management, social forestry, wildlife conservation and social inclusion.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of the ecosystem benefits of mangrove forest restoration and the effectiveness of nature-based solutions to climate change, listen here: