- The world’s largest carbon credit certifier, Verra, has overhauled its methods for calculating the climate impacts of REDD projects that aim to reduce deforestation.
- REDD stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
- The emissions reductions from these projects can be sold on the voluntary carbon market to individuals and companies, which proponents say provides a vital stream of funding for forest conservation.
- The update changes the process for calculating deforestation baselines, which help determine how effective a project has been at reducing forest loss and keeping the carbon those trees contain out of the atmosphere.
Verra, the world’s largest certifier of carbon credits, has released an update for calculating the climate benefits of the REDD forest conservation projects it certifies.
The U.S.-based nonprofit said the changes, released Nov. 27, will bolster the integrity of these credits and buyer confidence by employing the latest science and technology to improve the accuracy of its carbon accounting.
Short for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, REDD (or REDD+, which adds an emphasis on conservation and sustainable forest management) aims to cut back on the bursts of carbon emitted when forests are cleared — for firewood, for example, or to clear land for farming. The updated methodology applies specifically to projects trying to avoid this sort of “unplanned deforestation.” These projects might train community members for jobs that allow forests to remain standing, for example, in turn keeping the carbon they contain out of the atmosphere where it could exacerbate climate change.
“This sector is absolutely critical to the story of mitigating global climate change,” Naomi Swickard, Verra’s senior director of REDD+ program development and innovation who led the creation of this methodology, said on a call with the media. The group said future updates may deal with “planned” deforestation, such as when a country allocates a patch of forest for a large agricultural plantation.
Swickard noted that deforestation in the tropics contributes 8% of the world’s emissions, which is more than any country on Earth except for the U.S. and China.
“There’s a number of studies that have looked at this problem, and essentially all concluded that these incredibly important ecosystems cannot be recovered in any time frame relevant to the climate crisis,” she added. “In other words, we have to stop this deforestation before we lose these forests.”
The emissions reductions from REDD+ projects are typically sold through the voluntary carbon market to individuals and companies looking to offset their own emissions or contribute more broadly to the global effort to addressing climate change. Verra says it had issued more than 1 billion certified carbon credits by 2022 under its verified carbon standard (VCS) program.
However recent criticisms of REDD+ and Verra’s approach to carbon accounting have called into question the veracity of claims that each credit sold actually corresponds to the reduction of an emission of a metric ton of CO2. A recent study in the journal Science found that many projects that generated Verra-certified credits overstated their climate benefits (an assertion that Verra disputes).
Thales West, the study’s lead author, told Mongabay that project developers had been able to choose from a set of methodologies to set the baseline deforestation for the project area. From that, they could then calculate how much their activities had reduced emissions and thus how many carbon credits they could sell. That level of control might lead developers to choose a methodology that estimated a high deforestation baseline, thereby maximizing the perceived value of their projects, West said.
“These are people with a clear conflict of interest,” he said.
Verra said this update, the first since September 2020, makes such conflicts of interest less likely. Specifically, Verra itself will now lead the process through which baselines are set. Other inclusions increase objectivity, Toby Janson-Smith, Verra’s chief program development and innovation officer, said at the press conference.
“It’s actually the auditors, the validation and verification bodies that are determining the actual emission reductions coming out of these projects,” he said, “and they’re independent from Verra and the project.”
Amid concerns about the integrity of these credits, several major corporations have moved away from investing in voluntary carbon credits. There have also been questions about how credits from individual projects fit into each country’s climate-related plans. Under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, participating countries are supposed to come up with nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, that tabulate national emissions and then set a course to reduce them. A big part of that calculus is the amount of forest a country contains because it has the potential to be such a large carbon sink. But until now, it’s been difficult to reconcile reduced-emissions credits that are often sold abroad with a country’s NDCs.
The new methodology “leverages” remote-sensing technology to provide countrywide data that will make this possible, Swickard said.
What’s more, that jurisdictional-scale data will help improve how the deforestation baselines are set, allowing for “a lot more consistency of methods across projects,” said Sarah Walker, director of REDD+ and natural climate solutions at the Wildlife Conservation Society and a contributor to the methodology update.
Baselines must also be reevaluated and adjusted if necessary every six years, as opposed to 10 under the previous requirements, the team said. All new REDD+ projects to address unplanned deforestation that seek verification under the VCS standard must use this methodology, as will previously verified projects for any new credits they issue. Those older projects may also reassess their prior calculations under this new methodology if they choose, Swickard said.
The overarching goal of these changes is to channel more money and resources into tackling global forest loss, she added.
“Hopefully, all of this will also lead to a new era of global investment in protecting nature,” Swickard added. “We believe that this sector is still critical, that many companies are still relying on this to help achieve goals, and that it’s an essential outcome in terms of being able to address climate change.
“This evolution and new methodology should really help us get there,” she said.
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Bluesky.
Banner image: A tree nursery supported by a REDD+ project at the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia. Image by John Cannon for Mongabay.
See related coverage:
Goldstein, A., Turner, W. R., Spawn, S. A., Anderson-Teixeira, K. J., Cook-Patton, S., Fargione, J., … Hole, D. G. (2020). Protecting irrecoverable carbon in Earth’s ecosystems. Nature Climate Change, 10(4), 287-295. doi:10.1038/s41558-020-0738-8
West, T. A. P., Wunder, S., Sills, E. O., Börner, J., Rifai, S. W., Neidermeier, A. N., Frey, G. P., & Kontoleon, A. (2023). Action needed to make carbon offsets from forest conservation work for climate change mitigation. Science, 381(6660), 873-877. doi:10.1126/science.ade3535