Raising a red flag on REDD+ projects: Compensate’s findings mirrored in new Guardian report

Monday, May 10, 2021

Last week, The Guardian and Greenpeace Unearthed published a joint investigation revealing that top airlines’ promises to offset flights rely on what the report calls ‘phantom credits’. The investigation looked into 10 Verra REDD+ projects that sell carbon credits by protecting forests threatened by illegal deforestation. Using satellite analysis of tree cover loss, the report shows that not only is there no proof of the deforestation predicted by the projects, but it is also impossible to verify that the projects have any benefits for the climate. At best, these benefits are overestimated.

The analysis reflects Compensate’s own findings after more than a year of evaluating forest conservation and reforestation projects using our unique sustainability criteria. More than 90% of projects evaluated failed these basic sustainability checks.

Issues in REDD+ projects

The reasons why projects failed vary. However, a clear issue was additionality: more than 50% of projects evaluated by Compensate were not considered additional, meaning that the same climate benefits would have happened even if the project didn’t exist. Our findings indicate that REDD+ projects in particular are significantly inflating their baseline, that is, the assumed deforestation that would have happened if the project didn’t exist. This means that credits issued from these projects are not providing the climate benefits they promise, mirroring the findings of The Guardian/Greenpeace report. In addition, some projects have serious permanence risks, threatening to release all the carbon stored in the forest after the project ends.

For experts in the field, the shortcomings of REDD+ projects are well known. Last year, Thales West, a former REDD+ auditor, published a research article concluding that 12 REDD+ projects in the Brazilian Amazon are overestimating their climate impact. By comparing project areas with nearby unprotected areas, the study found no significant evidence that the 12 REDD+ projects had mitigated forest loss. The problem? The methodologies used to quantify carbon credits for these projects were not robust enough, resulting in the projects’ impacts on avoided deforestation being overstated and millions of credits being issued with no true impact on the climate. 

What can be done to ensure climate impact?

It is clear the current market needs to be disrupted, making room for robust methodologies to replace the loosely set minimum requirements for projects. Today, the means exist to set strict additionality criteria and realistic estimations of the benefits projects deliver, based on science and technology. A stronger foundation needs to be laid to ensure that each carbon credit delivers real, additional climate impact.

At Compensate, we tackle the risks associated with projects through our rigorous sustainability approach. We score each project against our sustainability criteria, getting closer to estimating the true climate impact of one carbon credit. With our built-in overcompensation, we are able to mitigate some of the risks present in carbon capture projects and calculations. 

What does this mean in practice? If we evaluate that in a given project, one carbon credit only has a real impact of 0.5 tCO2, we will then buy two carbon credits to offset one tonne of emissions. But we don’t stop there: 1:1 compensation results in carbon neutrality at best and has no impact on the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Therefore, we will always buy enough carbon credits to remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than the product or activity being offset causes.

Quality of carbon credits needs to be improved

Reducing emissions should always be the first step in fighting climate change. Offsetting should only be used to compensate for unavoidable emissions. But as Compensate’s work and the report from The Guardian and Greenpeace shows, the positive climate impact of offsetting is not guaranteed under current carbon standards. And if offsetters use these low quality credits as a way of avoiding emission reductions, the climate comes out worse off than if these carbon credits didn’t exist.

Dive in deeper into our findings of the state of the voluntary carbon market, and why projects fail our sustainability criteria. Download our white paper here.

The recent Guardian/Greenpeace report reflects the same issues found by Compensate in REDD+ projects. Our findings indicate that REDD+ projects in particular are significantly inflating their baseline.

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