Today’s Answer to Today’s Crisis

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New research revealing that global warming will surpass the key threshold of 1.5°C in the next four years has emphasized the urgency of the climate crisis. Many technological solutions scientists believe will be key to mitigating global warming are either still in development or not yet ready for widespread use. This makes the tools that are available immediately, at the scale needed, even more valuable. The voluntary carbon market is one such tool. In particular, REDD+ projects which aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation are some of our most effective weapons against climate change, and are readily available right now. However, recent criticism has not only distracted from the state of emergency our planet is in, but slowed demand for forest conservation carbon credits — with potentially damaging consequences.

Forest conservation carbon projects — known in the industry as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) — work by creating financial value for the carbon stored in forests, and therefore incentivize countries to protect them, reducing emissions in the process.

One of the reasons forests are so important is because of the major role conservation plays in the sequestration of CO2 — the main greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. In essence, REDD+ projects reduce emissions by ensuring more atmospheric CO2 is captured, contributing to a positive effect on climate change. But more than that, they promote biodiversity, protect ecosystems, and drive investment from the Global North to where it is needed in the South.

However, recent criticism of REDD+ projects has prompted some buyers to reconsider, and this deceleration is happening at exactly the wrong time. It is estimated that some 420 million hectares of forest have been lost since 1950, and although the rate of deforestation is decreasing due to deliberate efforts to protect them, there is still around 10 million hectares of forests being lost every year. We cannot pause or turn our back on these efforts — instead, we must scale up support for high-quality forest conservation carbon projects.

While the continual improvement of the quality of REDD+ projects must be encouraged and scrutiny on project baselines welcomed, criticism without proposing alternative action and solutions cannot be accepted. New methodologies, jurisdictional crediting and Core Carbon Principals are in the process of being established and fine tuned, but until these are fully resolved and available, forests, local communities and the climate need support more than ever.

Benefits of Forest Conservation

In the quest to promote scientific understanding of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that halting deforestation ranks just after solar energy in terms of its potential to reduce emissions. However, unlike solar energy, which people readily use as a form of cost-effective electricity, forest conservation doesn’t have many other revenue streams at scale besides the sale of carbon credits — making REDD+ projects crucial in the protection of our forests.

Recent criticism, however, has argued that REDD+ projects can negatively impact local communities. More specifically, that they can lead to the displacement of indigenous people and conflict with traditional practices and livelihoods. Despite this concern, indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) voices have been absent from the conversation — until now. The recent controversy has incited indigenous-led groups and organizations to publish an open letter in support of high-integrity forest protection carbon projects, in particular REDD+ projects. And their stance is clear: REDD+ projects are benefiting their communities as well as our climate.

Additionally, as well as reducing emissions, forest conservation projects foster and protect the earth’s biodiversity. In its Living Planet Report 2022, the World Wide Fund for Nature found that global wildlife populations have fallen by 69% since 1970. A chief driver of this loss is deforestation. REDD+ projects aren’t just faceless climate mitigation units; they are one of the only tools we have available right now to channel large amounts of private sector money into biodiversity conservation. Yes, we need a larger arsenal of tools in the fight against biodiversity loss (such as specific biodiversity credits), but these don’t exist en masse right now. So, until then, REDD+ projects provide vital support for biodiversity conservation in severely threatened ecosystems.

Slowing Not Solving

One criticism of REDD+ projects is that they can be seen as a way for businesses to offset their emissions without addressing the root issue. Granted, carbon offsetting alone will not solve global warming — instead, it is a tool which will help slow it and reduce residual emission on the pathway to net zero. Moreover, recent research from Sylvera found that companies purchasing carbon credits decarbonize at a higher rate than companies that don’t. High-quality carbon credits play an important, interim role in mitigating our impact on climate change — but the first step for any company is to create a plan to reach net zero. In the near term, any residual, unavoidable emissions should be compensated for through the purchase of carbon credits. Over time, the number of carbon credits purchased will reduce as a business moves forward with its net-zero journey.


 Scrutiny as a Way Forward

Although we should support the scrutiny of carbon projects (one ton from project A does not equal one ton from project B), scrutiny should not be used as an excuse for corporate buyers to give up on high-quality REDD+ projects. Various companies and organizations exist to distinguish between high- and low-quality carbon credits and to help companies make the right decisions. Credible standards bodies, like Verra, can be used to check quality (especially on additionality, permanence and how baselines are set); experienced origination teams check co-benefits, creation and issue dates of a project; and more recently, specialist ratings agencies have emerged to offer additional support in determining quality.

While carbon credits are not the only way to prevent deforestation, they are scalable, and productive tools are available now, capable of directly incentivizing forest conservation. Deciding which projects to support must be part of the due diligence process for companies seeking to invest in this space — but support on forest conservation should be commended as sound business decision making. Unfortunately, critics have moved the spotlight away from the harsh reality of the issue: this is today’s problem, not tomorrow’s.
There is a broad non-governmental organization (NGO) consensus that a gradual shift, rather than an overnight change, towards jurisdictional (larger scale) baselines and programs is required. In the meantime, however, we need to support the high-quality projects that are delivering results today. Of course, we must do due diligence on these projects to separate the good from the bad, but turning our backs on REDD+ now is not the answer. Climate change is today’s crisis, and while the search goes on for more effective, scalable solutions for the future, we must support the invaluable, crucial role that forest conservation carbon projects play today in mitigating our effects on the environment.

Ed Hewitt is director of natural climate solutions at carbon finance business Respira. With a background in environmental NGOs, and over 10 years’ experience in environmental finance, he is working to help the voluntary carbon market scale and better fund nature-based solutions. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

Nature-Based Solutions, CO2 Emissions, Low-Carbon Policy, Carbon Markets
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