Mitigating Concerns: Forest Carbon Credits hold the Key

Forest conservation is a key tool for climate change mitigation, but integrity issues with forest carbon offsets need to be addressed.

Amid growing investor interest in forest-based climate mitigation, including forest carbon credits and benefits through reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), challenging questions have emerged in recent debates, and must be adequately addressed, experts say.

Forest conservation is a key tool for climate change mitigation, but integrity issues with forest carbon offsets – such as inflated reference levels – need to be addressed in order to maintain the integrity of, and support for, forest-based climate solutions, said scientists in the 9 May session of the Global Forest Observations Initiative (GFOI) Plenary 2023. The side event aimed to address potential pitfalls, mainly by looking at lessons from CIFOR-ICRAF’s long-term Global Comparative Study on REDD+ (2009-2023), involving some 14 years of research across 22 countries.

Accurate and transparent measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of emissions is a vital part of the forest carbon market; however, too few rigorous assessments of REDD+ effectiveness are available, said Pham Thu Thuy, senior scientist leading the climate change, energy and low-carbon development team with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF).

That, in turn, has contributed to the absence of clear guidance on good implementation practices, she said.

Reforming methodologies for constructing and measuring reference levels, such as deforestation rates, could improve integrity and credibility in REDD+ projects that, in general, can require millions of dollars in upfront investments and may take as long as 10 years to show a return, speakers said during the GFOI event. It brought together global experts to share scientific findings on the effectiveness of forest carbon projects.

Standards for ‘high-integrity REDD+’ could include the evaluation of counterfactual baselines, new remote sensing capabilities, address atmospheric integrity, leakage, biodiversity impacts, and equity, said Kevin R. Brown, global lead on technical standards for REDD+ and nature-based solutions at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Erin Sills, a senior associate with CIFOR-ICRAF, who is also with North Carolina State University, noted that impact evaluation and accounting systems for carbon credits serve different purposes. However, she added, findings and methods from impact evaluation should be used to design accounting systems that “maximize the incentives to maximize reductions in deforestation.”

Besides focusing on forest carbon credits and markets, benefit-sharing mechanisms must also be addressed, said Pham, as discussions turned to challenges and prospective solutions in moving towards high-integrity forest carbon credits.

“We need to have an equitable sharing of benefits, as well as the involvement of local communities to ensure equity and fairness are taken into account,” she added.

“While we see a lot of improvement and a lot of discussion on how to advance the methodology to evaluate carbon credits, I think the progress in terms of non-carbon benefits has been much slower in comparison.”

   Experts discussed challenging questions around forest-based climate-change mitigation at GFOI event. Photo by Levania Santoso/CIFOR-ICRAF

Adequate funding remains a serious hurdle and REDD+ overall has been under-financed, particularly national REDD+ programs, said Sven Wunder, session moderator and a CIFOR-ICRAF senior associate. Project proponents could also use their funds more effectively by targeting areas most at risk – something that recent research suggests doesn’t always happen, added Wunder, who is also with the European Forest Institute (EFI).

“REDD+ could have more of a forest conservation impact if these interventions were more spatially targeted in the sense of choosing to start with areas where the deforestation is considerable, rather than ‘high and far’ areas where forest loss is low and improbable to start with,” he said.

“Within your project site, it’s equally important to prioritize those areas that are predictably most threatened by deforestation, e.g. those being closer to roads, rivers, or towns.”

In too many countries, project funding is not allocated equitably and institutional frameworks to clarify who owns carbon rights or who are beneficiaries remain inadequate, said Pham.

“If you want to commit to social safeguards and equitable outcomes, you also need to provide sufficient financial resources to it,” she said. That includes funding to conduct costly free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) processes involving Indigenous Peoples and local communities, said Pham.

“Yet after (many) years of implementing REDD+, countries are still in the process of designing beneficiary mechanisms.”

Most of the funding for jurisdictional REDD+ has so far has come from international aid budgets. Many developing countries are now questioning the proportion of funding for climate programs from total spending on official development assistance (ODA), said Arild Angelsen, senior CIFOR-ICRAF associate, who outlined the history of REDD+ credits and carbon markets. As much as one-third of development assistance is being directed to climate-related projects, he noted.

“There are concerns that climate (as an issue) has grown too big and taken resources away from more direct poverty reducing – although, a stable climate is also necessary for fighting poverty in the future, said Angelsen, also a professor in the School of Economics and Business at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU).

Panelists said more support from fellow scientists is also needed in:

  • methodology for a cost-effective approach to produce jurisdictional baselines for unplanned degradation, leveraging new and emerging technologies;
  • spatial modeling of deforestation risk, to better set baselines and targets for interventions;
  • assessing multiple forms of leakage in a cost-effective way, including measuring trade-offs between simple approaches and complex, expensive localized approaches.

Donors engaging in jurisdictional REDD+ should also invest in impact evaluation, which is not yet happening, said Wunder. This failure means that within the next years “we will again all be scratching our heads to understand what programmes have or have not worked, and why”. For more information on this topic, please contact Pham Thu Thuy at

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