REDD+ projects, which aim to combat climate change by incentivizing forest conservation, have long been hailed as a solution. However, a study conducted by UC Berkeley and funded by Carbon Market Watch has revealed that only 1 out of every 13 credits issued represents a genuine reduction in emissions. The study, titled “Error Log: Exposing the methodological failures of REDD+ forestry projects,” not only questions the suitability of REDD+ for carbon offsetting but also raises concerns about its impact on local communities and the environment.
REDD+ stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” and is an international initiative backed by organizations such as the UN-REDD and the World Bank. It aims to reduce carbon emissions by incentivizing forest conservation. As of the end of 2022, there are over 620 individual REDD+ projects and programs implemented globally, with over 400 million REDD+ credit issuances. However, the study highlights several factors that influence the accuracy and effectiveness of these carbon credits.
One of the main factors is baseline setting, which refers to the estimated level of carbon emissions that would occur without the project. Accurate baselines are crucial for measuring a project’s effectiveness, but the study found a staggering 14x overestimation in baseline settings. This means that the highest baseline calculated for a given project was 14 times higher than the lowest, leading to inflated carbon credits.
Another factor is leakage, which refers to the unintended increase in carbon emissions outside the project’s boundary due to its implementation. Current methodologies underestimate leakage, with an average rate of just 4.4%, which undermines the overall effectiveness of the carbon credits.
Forest carbon accounting, which involves calculating the amount of carbon stored in the forest that the project aims to protect, is also a crucial factor. The study found a 23%-30% overestimation in forest carbon, including both aboveground and belowground carbon pools. This leads to the issuance of more carbon credits than are actually warranted.
Permanence, which considers the long-term viability of storing carbon in forests, is another factor that affects the credibility of carbon credits. Risks such as wildfires, pests, and political instability can release stored carbon back into the atmosphere. The study reveals that these risks are often underestimated, with natural risks being underestimated by more than a factor of 10.
Lastly, the study raises concerns about the safeguards put in place to protect local communities and the environment from potential harm caused by REDD+ projects. The current Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) safeguards are weak and fall behind international standards, raising ethical concerns and questioning the overall integrity of the projects.
To address these issues, the study provides several recommendations. It suggests implementing ex-post baseline setting using real-time data to correct inflated baselines. It also emphasizes the need for transparency, with all calculations being publicly available. Independent analysts should set baselines to eliminate conflicts of interest.
Regarding leakage, the study recommends standardizing leakage identification and tightening exceptions to include market leakage. It also suggests considering international factors, as current methodologies ignore international leakage.
To improve forest carbon accounting, the study recommends adopting scientifically-backed equations based on the latest research. It also calls for making all data publicly available and quantifying the uncertainty in belowground carbon overestimation.
To address the issue of permanence, the study advises against offsetting fossil fuel emissions with carbon storage in forests and recommends basing risk assessment on scientific evidence. It also suggests revising buffer contributions to make them more robust.
In terms of safeguards, the study recommends adopting policies that meet or exceed international standards, as the current VCS safeguards are less stringent. It also calls for rigorous verification by verification bodies and the establishment of a free-of-charge, independent channel for grievances.
The UC Berkeley study serves as a wake-up call, highlighting the need for improvements in REDD+ projects. By implementing the study’s recommendations, we can enhance the quality, effectiveness, and ethical standing of these projects, ensuring a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change.