25. August 2023

Study calls for improvements in climate protection Study calls for improvements in climate protection

Carbon credits from avoided deforestation often fail to deliver what they promise

Projects that reduce deforestation often sell carbon credits - for instance, to consumers purchasing airline tickets. However, over 90 percent of these project credits do not actually offset greenhouse gas emissions. This is the conclusion of a study conducted by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Netherlands), the University of Bonn, the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom) and the European Forest Institute in Barcelona (Spain). It was carried out on an exemplary basis for 26 projects in six countries. The results have now been published in the renowned journal Science.

Voluntary REDD+ project sites included in the study:
Voluntary REDD+ project sites included in the study: - (A) Peru and Colombia. (B) Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania, and Zambia. (C) Cambodia. Study areas are indicated in red. Purple areas are the sites excluded from the analysis. © Image: Reprinted with permission from Thales A.P. West et al., SCIENCE 381:873 (2023)
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There is growing interest globally in compensation mechanisms for climate protection. Carbon credits reached a total market value of $2 billion in 2022. Furthermore, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement promotes the transfer of carbon credits as tradable financial units that offset greenhouse gas emissions. The international research team studied a total of 26 projects in Peru, Colombia, Congo, Tanzania, Zambia and Cambodia. Most of these conservation projects have barely contributed to protecting forests. In addition, greenhouse gas reductions from forest conservation were lower than reported.

West and his fellow researchers evaluated the impact of voluntary REDD+ projects: Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries. This is a voluntary climate protection instrument that enables greenhouse gas emissions to be offset through forest conservation.

Researchers collected data on voluntary REDD+ projects and project regions, including historical deforestation, to create counterfactual scenarios for project areas, meaning scenarios of what would have happened without the REDD+ program. They then compared these reference scenarios with the project developers’ calculations.

For most of these projects, the researchers found no evidence that they reduce deforestation. They estimate that 90 percent of the credits from REDD+ projects do not actually offset greenhouse gas emissions. Projects that reduce deforestation overestimate their impact. This results in projects issuing more carbon credits than they should.

According to the researchers, this means that carbon credits purchased by individuals and organizations to reduce their own emissions are largely “hot air” and do not actually offset emissions. “We are fooling ourselves when we purchase these offsets,” says Dr. Thales A. P. West of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “Individuals and organizations are spending billions of dollars on a climate change mitigation strategy that does not work, instead of investing this money into something that can actually make a difference, such as clean energy.”

Prof. Dr. Jan Börner from the Institute for Food and Resource Economics (ILR) and the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn is also involved in the study. “Carbon credits from the REDD+ program can be a way to reduce carbon emissions. I see the results of the study as an urgent call to ensure that the methods for verifying and evaluating emitted certificates are improved,” says Börner. The Professor of Economics of Sustainable Land Use & Bioeconomics is also the spokesperson for the Transdisciplinary Research Area “Sustainable Futures” at the University of Bonn. 

In addition to the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Netherlands) and the University of Bonn, the study involves the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), the European Forest Institute in Barcelona (Spain), the Center for International Forestry Research in Lima (Peru), North Carolina State University in Raleigh (USA) and the University of New South Wales in Sydney (Australia). The research was funded by the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI), the Meridian Institute, the Center for International Forestry Research’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+, the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture and the German Research Foundation.

Thales A. P. West, Sven Wunder, Erin O. Sills, Jan Börner, Sami W. Rifai, Alexandra N. Neidermeier, Gabriel Frey, Andreas Kontoleon: Action needed to make carbon offsets from forest conservation work for climate change mitigation, Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.ade3535; https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.ade3535

Prof. Dr. Jan Börner
Institute for Food and Resource Economics (ILR)
Center for Development Research (ZEF)
University of Bonn
Tel. +49 228 73-3548
Email: jborner@uni-bonn.de

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