CO2 compensation from forest protection projects overestimated


Forest conservation is often used as a method for offsetting carbon emissions. Because trees absorb the greenhouse gas and store it in their tissues. © GettyTim82/ iStock

As a voluntary compensation for CO2 emissions, companies and private individuals can save tropical forests from deforestation by purchasing certificates. However, many of the forests allegedly protected in this way would probably not have been cut down even without the certificates, a study has now shown. Accordingly, the apparently avoided emissions are systematically overestimated. According to the team of authors, only about six percent of the traded certificates actually contributed to the avoidance of CO2 emissions. The team is therefore calling for stricter guidelines and controls for the certification of forest protection projects to offset emissions.

The tropical rainforests store large amounts of CO2 that would be released if they were cut down. The REDD+ program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation in developing countries), which was launched on the initiative of the United Nations, is therefore intended to protect forest areas from deforestation by converting the CO2 that would otherwise be released into tradable credits. The certificates, which companies and private individuals can buy to compensate for their own CO2 emissions, represent a voluntary supplement to the official European emissions trading system, in which companies in certain sectors are obliged to purchase certificates for their emissions. Many companies use the voluntary CO2 certificates from REDD+ projects to advertise climate neutrality.

Historical trends instead of real comparisons

The problem with the certificates: In order to determine how much CO2 is actually saved by protecting a certain forest area, forecasts must be used as to what the fate of the corresponding piece of forest would be like without the project. A team led by Thales West from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands has now come to the conclusion in a study that most of these forecasts assume unrealistically high CO2 savings. As a result, significantly more CO2 certificates are sold than CO2 is actually avoided. According to the method commonly used up to now, the estimates are based on historical trends in deforestation of similar areas as well as on estimates of further population development and land use in the corresponding regions. According to the researchers, however, these are often imprecise and, moreover, do not take current social and political developments into account.

To estimate how much CO2 was actually saved by the certificate-financed protection zones, West and his team examined 26 REDD+ projects in Peru, Colombia, Cambodia, Zambia, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo using a different method: “We have used real-world comparative sites to show what each of the REDD+ forest projects we studied would most likely look like today, rather than relying on extrapolations of historical data that ignore a variety of factors, from political changes to market forces,” explains West.

Wrong incentives and lack of controls

The finding: "We found that most projects did not significantly reduce deforestation, and for those projects that did, the reductions were significantly smaller than claimed," reports the team. The researchers estimate that only about six percent of the carbon credits generated in 2020 were linked to the actual avoidance of CO2 emissions. "These projects have already compensated for almost three times as much carbon as they actually reduced by preserving the forests," says co-author Andreas Kontoleon from the University of Cambridge. A large proportion of the generated CO2 certificates are still on the market and have not yet been used to offset other CO2 emissions.

According to the researchers, a weakness of many of the projects examined is that they protect forests that are only slightly endangered anyway. "These are areas that are economically unattractive, far from roads, in mountains or swamps," explains Jonas Hein from the German Institute of Development and Sustainability in Bonn, who was not involved in the study. Nevertheless, the providers of the corresponding certificates state that a large amount of CO2 can be saved by paying for the protection of these areas. "There are perverse incentives to generate large numbers of carbon credits, and currently the market is essentially unregulated," says Kontoleon. "Regulatory authorities are set up, but many of those involved are also linked to certification bodies for carbon credits." Controls are therefore sometimes carried out by the very people who benefit from the highest possible alleged CO2 savings.

Forest protection projects not as compensation

"The results of the study have far-reaching implications," write Julia Jones of Bangor University in the UK and Simon Lewis of the University of Leeds in the UK in an accompanying commentary, also published in the journal Science. "Misleading compensations have negative consequences for the climate because they do not offset the emissions released, for forest protection because they do not reduce deforestation as much as claimed, and for future financing of forest protection because of the reputational risk caused by the accusation of window dressing disrepute could discourage future investment.”

The team of authors therefore calls for the methods for certifying projects to be adapted and for stricter controls to be introduced. "Methods for establishing deforestation baselines for climate action urgently need to be revised to correctly attribute reduced deforestation to projects, thereby preserving both incentives for forest conservation and the integrity of global carbon accounts," they write.

From Hein's point of view, however, such measures would not solve fundamental problems - especially since forests only store the absorbed CO2 for a limited period of time and therefore cannot compensate for the emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels in the long term, even with a functioning certificate system. "If compensation has to be made, for example in the case of unavoidable air travel, then investments should not be made in forest protection or reforestation projects, but in projects that invest in renewable energies, for example," he says. "If companies nevertheless want to invest in the protection of forests for reasons of 'corporate social responsibility', then this should be done in addition and not be part of the company's greenhouse gas reduction strategy."

Source: Thales West (University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands) et al., Science, doi: 10.1126/science.ade3535

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