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Missing the forest for the trees — the bigger picture of REDD+

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future" - Yogi Berra

Photo credit: gryffyn m from Pexels

Nature-based carbon offsets have received a lot of flak recently. On 18 January 2023, the Guardian published an article referencing work done by Die Zeit and SourceMaterial, reporting that >90% of these carbon offsets are spurious. In broad strokes, the piece states that avoided deforestation credits from Verra (which are based on hypothetical future scenarios):

  1. grossly overestimate their climate and biodiversity impacts compared to business-as-usual forecasts on a regular basis,

  2. are another speculative asset class that exacerbates neo-colonialist land grabbing, and

  3. are harnessed by corporates seeking to delay action on their own emissions.

Central to the argument is that discrepancies exist on how the threats to forests are assessed by Verra methodologies. As deforestation is not evenly distributed spatially but has very specific causes, Verra approaches are built upon certain principles (simplified here):

  1. Determine local deforestation agents and quantify their effects.

  2. Adapt to different social, environmental and economic contexts, recognising the diversity of on-the-ground scenarios that exist.

  3. Define deforestation baselines and project future sites subject to deforestation based on historical data.

The article argues that the flexibilities of these Verra methodologies lead to abuse due to consistent ‘cherry-picking’ of land areas and future ‘pessimistic’ scenarios by developers to inflate carbon credit volumes. By citing studies that utilised synthetic controls, pixel-matching and regional deforestation data that differ greatly from current Verra protocols, the messaging was that Verra listed REDD+ projects had overstated their impact and had low climate integrity.

While this Guardian piece does surface some legitimate limitations present in methodologies, the fundamental differences on how deforestation rate is computed between the studies and Verra approaches leads to different, inaccurate conclusions that past REDD+ credits have had no impact (please see the Verra response for more information on how their project baselines are calculated and suited for local contexts).

More importantly, the scathing article erodes the confidence and trust that the voluntary carbon market sorely needs to encourage the necessary climate finance to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Although current practices of projecting future deforestation may have flaws, perfectionism cannot hinder the progress of doing good, especially with the urgency of the ‘twinned’ climate and biodiversity crises our planet faces. As science and technology continue to evolve and inform the robustness of REDD+ and other carbon methodologies, it is inevitable that shortcomings will be unearthed. Projects and standards in the voluntary carbon market are no different and constantly undergo reviews by experts and public consultations — South Pole, for instance, is in the midst of its own internal reviews for all their REDD+ projects — to reflect the best available knowledge and ensure climate integrity. Instead of the fastidious focus on ‘phantom’ credits, a more balanced take on this issue would also recognise the difficulty of predicting deforestation, some merits of the current work and what improvements can be made.

As a very apt quote attributed to Paul Saffo reads, “The goal of forecasting is not to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.”

Even as the best way to simulate subsequent deforestation remains a work in progress, we can be certain of this — there has never been a more crucial time for the good work of conservation and restoration of ecosystems to create a real, positive impact on climate and biodiversity.


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