Conservation News

News, views and stories from the front lines of conservation


All recent news

Forest carbon credits ‘worse than nothing’? There’s more to this story

© Charlie Shoemaker

More than 3,000 people in the United States had a heart transplant last year.

This life-extending procedure crossed from the theoretical to the experimental to the commonplace thanks to decades of research and experimentation — and failure.

So has it gone with one of the signature ideas for tackling the climate crisis.

The idea: Pay countries to not cut down their forests through the sale of “carbon credits.” Polluters in developed countries could buy and trade credits, the idea goes, with the revenue being paid to landowners in developing countries as an incentive to leave their forests standing. Ultimately, market forces would discourage carbon pollution as prices for these credits rose over time, while forests would absorb more climate-warming carbon from the atmosphere.

This idea has taken various forms over the years; in each case, it was quickly discovered to be more complicated in reality than on paper, and many such projects did not deliver their hoped-for climate benefits.

And that, according to the ProPublica article published this week, “An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth: Why Carbon Credits for Forest Preservation May Be Worse Than Nothing,” is enough evidence to conclude that all efforts using carbon credits henceforth are doomed to fail, and that we should stop trying.

One is glad that the world’s heart surgeons didn’t take this approach.

Scrutiny of forest carbon credit programs is a good thing. The worst thing we can do is to throw good money after bad, to waste the limited time we have to try to build something that fails.

The ProPublica article was deeply researched and spoke well to the daunting challenges and complexity that such initiatives face: How can we prevent “leakage” (the displacement of deforestation from one place to another)? How do we ensure that emissions credits don’t simply allow polluters to continue polluting? How do we assure “permanence” (the durability of protections for forests) and “additionality” (that the emissions cuts would not have occurred without the carbon credits)?

And not least: How do we pay for all of this?

These are all challenges that can be solved. To use past failures to meet these challenges as reason for condemning all carbon credit programs to failure is not only wrong; given the brief timeframe that humanity has to prevent runaway climate change, it’s dangerous. We can’t bend the carbon curve without both phasing out fossil fuels and protecting nature, and forest-based carbon credits are one way to do both.

The fact is, many of the above challenges have already been addressed.

Going forward, all forest carbon credits traded internationally will need to meet requirements agreed under the U.N., including use of a national baseline against which deforestation rates are measured to ensure that emissions are being avoided; a national forest monitoring system so that changes against that baseline can be accurately measured; a national strategy for avoiding leakage; and adherence to safeguards that ensure permanence and documented participation of local stakeholders, including indigenous peoples.

Large-scale markets for carbon credits that adhere to these standards are just now being designed under the Paris Agreement on climate change, for emissions from international air travel, and in California.

For example, the draft California Tropical Forest Standard — which sets the criteria for carbon credits that could be used in California — specifies similar requirements, including a buffer to replace increases in deforestation; a crediting baseline that starts 10 percent below the historical reference level and continues to decline, providing even more assurance that credits are “additional”; and third-party-verified reports on carbon accounting and social and environmental safeguards.

As these markets start functioning, the demand for carbon credits is expected to increase significantly, bringing billions of dollars to forest conservation as a key climate action.

California’s cap-and-trade program is already financing forest conservation and restoration: To date, nearly 110 million forest credits have been traded, generating more than US$ 500 million — half of which has gone to Native American communities. To address concerns that forest carbon credits amount to a license to pollute, California has limited the share of companies’ compliance obligations that can be met through offsets at 8%, to reduce to 6% in 2020.

Other successful forest carbon credit programs eluded ProPublica’s eye.

Costa Rica, for example, established laws in the 1990s to reduce deforestation and restore forests, including an innovative fuel tax to fund payments to landowners to keep forests standing. The Central American country monitors deforestation rates to know whether they are getting results across the whole country or simply displacing (or delaying) deforestation. Through this system, Costa Rica generates US$ 30 million a year for forest conservation and has conserved or restored close to 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres). The next step: selling the carbon credits generated through this program to international buyers.

In Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest — which despite its protected status saw deforestation fueled by agricultural encroachment and illegal logging — Conservation International helps to provide local farmers with economic alternatives to deforestation. Families in this area pledge not to cut down trees on their lands in return for benefits such as agricultural training, improved cookstoves and educational materials. These agreements have been partially funded through carbon credits. Now, Conservation International is working with national and regional governments to ensure that future Alto Mayo carbon credits will become part of Peru’s national program and meet U.N. requirements.

Carbon credits are not a silver bullet. They are just one of the ways to generate financing to protect nature and enhance its ability to regulate the climate.

The prize and purpose behind all of this is keeping global average temperatures within a safe range. Our efforts in this realm, like all human endeavors, are built on the attempts — and failures — of the past. It is not time to, shall we say, lose heart.

Joanna Durbin is director of the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance. Lina Barrera, senior director of international policy at Conservation International, and Will Turner, senior vice president of global strategies at Conservation International contributed to this article.

Further reading