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Carbon credits keep forests standing — and help support communities

© Terence Tham/500px


Tropical forests are our greatest natural ally in the fight against climate change, yet in many places they are more valuable dead than alive.

Conservation International is working to flip the script by valuing the carbon that trees remove from the atmosphere and store. Through carbon projects, we can help to protect the climate by protecting forests — and the people who depend on them. As one part of the solution to climate breakdown, forest-carbon projects are helping humanity bend the climate curve.


By the numbers

of GHG emissions

Tropical deforestation accounts for 11 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

of emissions reductions

Protecting and restoring tropical forests represents at least 30 percent of the necessary emissions reductions to avoid climate catastrophe.

of funding

Yet these “natural climate solutions” receive only 3 percent of global finance dedicated to protecting the climate.

of people

More than 25% of people on Earth depend directly on forest resources for their livelihoods.


What is ‘REDD+?’

Some carbon projects fall under a framework called REDD+ — short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation — a United Nations-backed policy and incentives framework that enables countries to protect forests to achieve the emissions cuts required under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. Read more here.


To market, to market

There are two kinds of markets for carbon credits: voluntary and compliance.

  • Compliance: The compliance market is used by governments and companies that are mandated by law to measure and reduce their carbon emissions.
  • Voluntary: As the name suggests, the voluntary market for carbon credits is one that emitters elect to participate in. Credits are used for purposes other than regulatory compliance, such as delivering on voluntary climate targets or as part of corporate social responsibility measures, for example.

For both types of markets, there exists a broad array of standards and mechanisms for monitoring, reporting and verification, ranging from more flexible to more robust, depending on the final use of credits.



What is a 'carbon project'?

The idea behind a forest carbon project: Pay people to not cut down their forests through the sale of “carbon credits.” Governments, companies, industries and individuals dedicated to taking climate action can buy and trade credits to supplement their emission-reduction actions, with the revenue being paid to local communities as an incentive to leave their forests standing or increase their forest cover through restoration. The result: Buyers neutralize a portion of their emissions; market forces reduce further emissions as prices for credits rise over time; and forests stay standing, absorbing more climate-warming carbon from the atmosphere while supporting local livelihoods.

So, what is a ‘carbon credit’?

A carbon credit represents a reduction of 1 metric ton in greenhouse gas emissions to compensate for emissions made somewhere else, or in another sector of a country’s economy. These credits can be bought, sold or traded — but once used, a carbon credit is “retired,” meaning it cannot be traded again, assuring that only the buyer can claim to have cut emissions associated with that credit.

What carbon credits are not

Not a license to pollute: Carbon credits are expressly designed as a “bridge” for companies already working to reduce their emissions, not a free pass for business as usual. In fact, companies that invest in carbon projects are climate leaders, not laggards: A 2016 survey of industries found that companies that bought voluntary carbon credits had more ambitious emissions reduction targets and did more across the board to cut emissions compared with companies that did not. Many countries and regulators set a limit on the number of credits that emitters may purchase.

Not a silver bullet: Carbon projects alone are not going to solve climate change — doing so will require a transformation of the global economy to one powered by renewable energy. Rather, they can be part of that transformation as one tool that companies and governments can use to flatten the carbon curve.

Not doomed by technical challenges: Carbon projects have been implemented in various forms for more than a decade, passing from the experimental to the commonplace thanks to testing and scientific advancements. Most of the problems of ensuring that carbon projects deliver on their intended benefits have been solved.

Not a ‘land grab’: High-quality carbon projects are necessarily built on the free, prior and informed consent of local communities where the project will take place. These projects do not separate people from their lands, but rather are predicated upon strengthening and upholding their rights to their lands.


© Adrián Portugal

Case studies

Driving emissions reductions in Peru

Despite its protected status, Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest — an area of Amazonian forest twice the size of New York City — had some of the country's highest deforestation rates. To halt this cycle, Conservation International worked with partners — including local communities, corporations and Peru's government — to develop a REDD+ program. Now, 70 percent of the community in the Alto Mayo basin benefits directly from the initiative; since 2008, the program has generated more than 8.4 million metric tons of emissions reductions — the equivalent of taking nearly 150,000 cars off the road each year.


© Sebastien Gabriel

Trading forest credits in California

California’s cap-and-trade program is already financing forest conservation and restoration there. To date, more than 100 million forest credits have been traded, generating more than $500 million in revenue, with more than half of that going directly to local Indigenous 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.


© Conservation International/photo by Ashton Jones

Incentivizing conservation in Costa Rica

Costa Rica 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 $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 to support further environmental priorities.



What are the other benefits of carbon projects?


Tropical forests are home to countless species that exist nowhere else — including many plant species that are critical to medicine, and pollinators crucial for agriculture.


Forests are powerhouses of the water cycle, holding and filtering water — and providing flood control — for adjacent communities.

Food and jobs

Millions depend directly on the goods and services that tropical forests provide for their food security and jobs.

Sustainable development

Revenue from carbon projects funds social, educational and health programs in forest communities; they also support sustainable and economically resilient jobs for millions.


Requirements for carbon projects

Carbon projects must meet various standards, including but not limited to:

  • Additionality: That emissions cuts would not have occurred without the carbon project investment.
  • Permanence: That emissions reductions or removals represented by a carbon credit endure for the long term.
  • Leakage: That deforestation is not simply displaced from a specific forested area to somewhere else.
  • Benefit-sharing: That the beneficiary communities of carbon projects are equitably compensated.


How these requirements are being met

All forest carbon credits traded internationally will need to meet requirements agreed under the U.N., including:

  • Baseline: A national baseline against which deforestation, degradation, conservation and restoration are measured to ensure that emissions are being reduced or removed
  • Monitoring: A forest monitoring system so that changes against that baseline can be accurately measured, to ensure additionality
  • Strategy: A national strategy to ensure permanence and avoid leakage
  • Safeguards: Adherence to and reporting on a series of social safeguards to ensure respect for indigenous rights and the participation of local stakeholders, and environmental safeguards to mitigate the risk of forest loss.


Principles for Investments in Natural Climate Solutions

Nature is one of the most effective ways to stop climate breakdown, yet natural climate solutions receive less than 3 percent of all global climate funding. Conservation International’s Principles for Investments in Natural Climate Solutions guide our engagement with companies that are helping to protect ecosystems that store climate-warming carbon from the atmosphere. Read our six principles »



© Pete Oxford

Measure your impact

Calculate your carbon footprint and learn how many trees it would take to offset your impact on the climate. When you offset your emissions through Conservation International, your contribution will go directly toward retiring carbon credits like the ones described above.

Carbon footprint calculator


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