Hopetoun Falls, Australia 

What are carbon credits?

Carbon credits keep forests standing — and help support communities


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 in their trunks and soils. 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.


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. A credit can be bought, sold or traded before it is “retired,” meaning it cannot be traded again, assuring that only the buyer can claim emissions cuts associated with that credit.

What carbon credits are not

  • Not a license to pollute: Carbon credits are a “bridge” for emitters already working to reduce their emissions, not a pass for business as usual. In fact, companies that invest in nature are leaders, not laggards: A 2016 survey of industries found that companies that bought voluntary carbon credits did more across the board to cut emissions than companies that did not. Moreover, many countries and regulators limit the number of credits that emitters may purchase.
  • Not a silver bullet: Carbon projects alone will not solve climate change — they are a vital way to flatten the carbon curve while the world transitions away from fossil fuels.
  • 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.


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 and individuals can buy and trade credits to supplement the cuts they make to their emissions, with the revenue going to local communities as an incentive to keep their forests standing (or to restore them). The result: Buyers neutralize a portion of their carbon footprint, and forests survive to absorb climate-warming carbon from the atmosphere while supporting local communities. Our carbon projects » 


What are the 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

To be considered successful, carbon projects must meet stringent criteria, including:

  • 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 one area to another.
  • 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 monitoring system to measure forest-cover changes against the baseline, to ensure additionality
  • Strategy: A national strategy to ensure permanence and avoid leakage
  • Safeguards: Adherence to social safeguards to ensure respect for Indigenous rights and the participation of local stakeholders, as well as environmental safeguards to mitigate the risk of forest loss.


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 UN and the Paris Agreement. Read more about REDD+ »


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 »


From our blog

2021 in review: In a critical year for climate, nature took center stage

© Michael Christopher Brown

Nature saw ups and downs in 2021, and Conservation News was there for it all. This month, we are revisiting some of the most significant stories of the past year.

It was a crucial year for climate change. A grim UN climate report found that humans are indisputably responsible for warming the planet — and that drastic action to protect nature is needed to prevent a climate catastrophe. 

Against this backdrop, we explored stories of innovators on the forefront of nature-based climate solutions, highlighted new research on nature’s powerful influence on our climate and showed how we can each take action. 

In a landmark study, Conservation International scientists mapped the essential ecosystems that humanity must protect to avoid total climate breakdown. From mangroves to old-growth forests, these ecosystems hold vast stores of “irrecoverable carbon” — which, if emitted into the atmosphere, could not be restored by 2050. Conservation international scientist Allie Goldstein, who co-authored the study, was unequivocal about the implications of the findings: “This is our generation’s carbon to save, and how we choose to move forward as a global community will determine our climate fate.”

Read more here

One of the most-discussed and most contentious issues in conservation this past year was carbon offsets — a way to compensate for, and ultimately reduce, climate-warming carbon pollution. With trillions of dollars of potential investments on the line, a major new report earlier this year proposed ways to improve standards and increase the effectiveness of offsets. In this post, we take you through what it means and why it matters. 

When you run out of coffee, what do you do? Do you fly to Central America and pick some beans yourself, or do you simply go the supermarket? In an eye-opening and colorful commentary, Conservation International scientist Bronson Griscom roasts critics’ complaints about carbon markets while highlighting why we — and the climate we depend on — need them now.

Read more here

A Conservation International study earlier this year showed that our planet’s oceans, forests and other living ecosystems saved us from a climate cataclysm: Without Earth’s biosphere, researchers found, the climate would have already crossed the 1.5°C (2.7°F) temperature increase widely considered to be the threshold for avoiding potentially catastrophic climate impacts. All the more reason to protect nature.

Read more here.

The latest United Nations climate report, released earlier this year, sounded the grimmest alarm yet on the intensifying effects of climate change. In this piece, Conservation International Senior Scientist Will Turner discussed what made this report different, the emotional response it seemed to evoke, and what we can do about it. 

Read more here.


Will McCarry is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: Endangered Florida manatee (© Comstock Images)