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REDD Plus or REDD “Light”? Biodiversity, communities and forest carbon certification

Until there is an agreement at the UNFCCC level on REDD, carbon credits from REDD projects can only be traded on voluntary markets. Buyers of these carbon credits rely on independent certification schemes to tell the difference between “real” carbon credits and “cowboy” carbon credits.

The Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) focusses on carbon accounting. VCS “verifies” the project developer’s calculations about how many carbon offsets are created by the project, or how many tons of carbon would have been emitted to the atmosphere in the absence of the project. Or, as Dan Welsh put it, verifying, “an imaginary commodity created by deducting what you hope happens from what you guess would have happened”.

A second question is whether the REDD project brings benefits to the communities living in and near the project area. The Climate Community and Biodiversity Standards (CCB) focus on environmental and social aspects of forestry offset projects.

The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) recently released a report that looks at four case studies and asks whether CCB certification really ensures that projects deliver community and biodiversity benefits. The report, titled, “REDD Plus or REDD ‘Light’? Biodiversity, communities and forest carbon certification” (pdf file, 479.1 kB), was written by Göran Eklöf of Context.

Eklöf looks at how the CCB standard was applied in three REDD projects: Oddar Meanchey in Cambodia, Ulu Masen in Indonesia, and Kasigau Corridor in Kenya, and one tree planting project in the Kikonda Forest Reserve in Uganda.

SSNC’s report looks at several issues that are key to REDD: Land tenure; Free, prior and informed consent; Benefit sharing; Biodiversity; and Carbon. Eklöf found numerous problems and concluded that CCB certification does not provide a guarantee that certified projects are benefiting either communities or biodiversity:

CCB certification can thus not be seen as assurance that communities benefit from the projects, tenure rights are respected, or that FPIC has been ensured. CCB requirements on biodiversity are also of little relevance for REDD type projects.

REDD-Monitor asked Eklöf a few questions about the report:

REDD-Monitor: What sort of problems did you find with the REDD projects that you visited?

Göran Eklöf: The problems vary greatly between the projects depending on the local and national context, the character of the project proponents, and the phase that the project was in when I visited. The Ulu Masen project in Indonesia appears to have failed completely due to the irresponsible actions of one project proponent, and a lack of interest on behalf of the new provincial government. It was the first project ever to be certified by the CCB, but it has never been implemented on the ground.

And in Cambodia, I saw massive encroachments in the project area by government soldiers, on a scale that endangers the viability of the community forests that make up the Oddar Meanchey project. The Government of Cambodia is the project holder through the Forestry Administration, but apparently lacks any ambition to redirect the new settlements.

A more general problem is the lack of proper consultations with local communities, and insufficient processes for ensuring their free and prior informed consent (FPIC), as required by the current version of the CCB standard. The CCB standard does not provide any guidance on what constitutes an acceptable process. A proper mechanism for the sharing of revenues from the sale of carbon credits is only in place in one of the projects, but auditors have certified that consent has been given even in projects where the terms are still to be negotiated. And although the Standard makes reference to “equitable sharing of benefits”, this is not included in the criteria against which projects are assessed, and there is no guidance as to what it means.

REDD-Monitor: Does CCB certification at least ensure that biodiversity is conserved?

Göran Eklöf: The CCB standard claims to certify “best practices to generate significant benefits” for biodiversity. But it is difficult to even imagine a project that actually reduces deforestation but does not meet the basic requirement, which is only to create net positive impacts for biodiversity compared to a baseline scenario where deforestation is allowed to continue. Even the Gold Standard level of certification does not require any proactive management of biodiversity.

REDD-Monitor: What was the most important finding from your research for the report?

Göran Eklöf: The application of the CCB standard appears to be inconsistent and weak. There seems to be a strong inclination among the accredited auditors towards approval, even in cases where the information they present themselves clearly indicates that the standard requirements have not been met.

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  1. Does anyone know whether there are any laws in the US which could be used to prevent CCB from issuing these fraudulent certificates?

    And are the supporters and funders of the supposed conservation groups that comprise the CCB Alliance – The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Rainforest Alliance, and Wildlife Conservation Society – aware that these organisations are perpetuating a fraud that, because it is creating false ‘carbon’ credits which can be used by polluters elsewhere to allow them to carry on polluting, is in fact contributing to the destruction of the planet?

    If I were them, I would be withdrawing my support and asking some difficult questions….

  2. Both the Oddar Meanchey and the Ulu Masen projects were validated but not verified. Validation means that the methodology the project intended to follow to meet the standards was approved. However, the verification step is where an auditor checks the actual activities taken and compares them to the methodology and to end results.

  3. @Dave (#2) – Thanks for this clarification. In fact, Rainforest Alliance validated Ulu Masen on 6 February 2008. The “validation validity period” was for five years and expired on 5 February 2013. So Ulu Masen is not even validated any more. However, there seems to be no mention of this on CCBA’s website.

  4. Third party auditors often recommend that CCBA verification be delayed for 3 to 5 years as development benefits to community and impacts to biodiversity can take time to develop and be measured. It is not a surprise that Ulu Masen has delayed the verification process. It will be interesting to see if they do proceed with re-validation and verification and if they do what the results are.

  5. @Dave (#5) – I agree it’s not a surprise that the Ulu Masen project developers delayed the verification process. The Ulu Masen project is currently stalled (to put it diplomatically) and has been for a couple of years. I visited Aceh in December 2012. Here are my notes from a visit to one of the villages in the Ulu Masen area.

  6. I can’t find the Ulu Masen VCS or Plan Vivo documents. Was it validated? If not, then maybe it is too soon to even call it a REDD+ project.

  7. @Dave (#6) – In January 2010 I interviewed Joe Heffernan of Fauna and Flora International. Heffernan said that the Ulu Masen project was “preparing for a more rigorous audit under VCS and other relevant protocols”. But it doesn’t look like that ever happened – I can’t find any VCS documents either.

    Whether any of this means that Ulu Masen is not a REDD project is an interesting question. The project proponents certainly advertised it as a REDD project.

  8. Finally, REDD-Monitor has realised the voluntary carbon market exists!
    However if you think VCS validation and verification is a light and easy process, do a bit more research. Ask one of the DOEs (Rainforest Alliance, TUV Rheinland, etc.) what actually goes into the process, what proportion of REDD projects are rejected. You will see that this process is quite rigorous.
    Now, if you still think that the GHG removal (credits per year) calculations, made by the project developer, and subsequently verified by the DOE, are erroneous, you should come up with a more detailed counter-argument than that over-used quotation from Dan Welsh.
    I look forward to seeing some more in-depth and balanced research in future.

  9. @David S (#8) – Thanks for this. There are lots of posts on REDD-Monitor about the voluntary carbon market.

    As various people have pointed out and as REDD-Monitor has reported over and over again, the trouble with carbon trading is that even if we assume that the number of carbon credits generated is accurate, whoever buys the carbon credits does so in order to continue polluting. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not push them from one place to another.

    I’m sorry you think Dan Welsh’s quotation is “over-used”, but like it or not, it does sum up what VCS attempts to do. Maybe you prefer a quotation from Louis Verchot at CIFOR:

    “Reference emissions levels set up a counterfactual of how much emissions levels would have been, would have occurred in the absence of activities to reduce the emissions. So, it’s a little complicated to set up because it is exactly that, it’s the counterfactual, it’s something that did not happen.”

  10. Hi Chris,

    Ok there are posts on REDD-Monitor about the Voluntary Carbon Market, however I feel the site’s general position is orientated towards the inter-governmental compliance market, as is the view of the general public. This is where the big problems of “paying to pollute” are in some cases valid, while in the voluntary market, I would argue, far less so.

    The vast majority of forest carbon credit volume traded to date has been on the voluntary market(81% up to 2011, ref. Forest Trends State of Forest Carbon Markets 2011, p.ii). On the voluntary market, to give an ideal scenario, a very green company may want to neutralise its unavoidable emissions. What would be your criticism of a company such as, say, hypothetically, The Body Shop, seeking to reduce its emissions from transport or packaging etc?

    Have you looked at the buyers of credits that have transacted these real volumes on the voluntary market (not hypothetical, like the Compliance Market), what is your evaluation of the “paying to pollute” aspect in more tangible terms? Is their footprint better than the average company today?

    CCB Standards are some of the most widely-recognised in the industry. Their benefits to communities and biodiversity, whether requiring active management (which I agree would be great), are real and tangible, despite not being ideal.

    On the supply side, look at a forest carbon project that works with residents in agro-forestry. Take, to give an example off the top of my head, the Alto Huayabamba project developed by Pur Project. Would you agree the environmental and community benefits are real?

  11. And regarding Louis Verchot’s (CIFOR’s) quotation about the counter-factual, I have to start by pointing out that CIFOR is not “anti-REDD” at all. CIFOR is an important player in international REDD and it constantly makes critiques and evaluations in order to improve it. This is important for REDD-Monitor and its readers to realise.

    For an example, see any of CIFOR’s publications about REDD or search the term on CIFOR’s blog. A particularly productive post on CIFOR’s website is “How to connect REDD+ and markets”, showing a very postive way forward for REDD in terms of both forests and the global land-access crisis.

    Let me clarify what Louis Verchot was saying: a REDD project avoids emissions which would have been released into the atmosphere because of deforestation. As such it must quantify a HYPOTHETICAL situation of deforestation, in which the project does not exist. This hypothetical situation is known as the baseline.

    It’s that simple. The use of “counterfactual” in this instance means hypothetical and is in no way connected to the “invalidity” , as you are implying, of REDD credits.

    The industry standards to do the calculation of GHG (greenhouse gas) removals are extremely rigorous and complex. accounting for myriad factors such as “insurance” (technically called “buffer”) for the situation of unexpected loss of carbon stocks, and “leakage” of deforestation activity to other locations because of the project activity.

    I would stress that anybody seeking an un-biased truth about these issues should consult VCS dot org methodologies section, to see their thoroughness for yourself, read the Dan Nepstad’s fairly damning rebuttal to Greenpeace’s critique of REDD on this very website, or generally, don’t believe the hype, seek a more informed opinion.

    As such this reference to Louis Verchot is a classic example of a quotation taken out of context.

  12. I really never understood the criticism that carbon credits allow polluters to “pay to pollute.” I understand the argument but right now in non-compliance markets polluters do not have to buy credits or otherwise pay anything to pollute. And almost always they don’t. Isn’t it better for polluters to have to either pay a fair price to pollute or have to offset their emissions? Sure, there are other ways to have polluters clean up their act. Some may even be better. Personally I favor a steep carbon tax. However, fighting against carbon credits is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  13. Exactly, this outright rejection of REDD is “the perfect being the enemy of the good”, I’m totally with you. REDD projects have flaws and challenges that any forest conservation project has also had to face – land rights, social problems, etc. – as shown in REDD monitor’s recent posts on “Two contrasting views of the Harapan Rainforest Project, Sumatra, Indonesia”, for example. However this is a factor of forest conservation, and you have to weigh it against the alternative (deforestation).
    The same argument goes for the “pay to pollute” criticism – isn’t it better than the alternative?
    Dan Nepstad’s comments to Greenpeace (found on REDD Monitor) also echo this: their one-sided rejection of REDD “threatens climate change mitigation and tropical forests”.
    For me, anyone having a systematic bias towards rejection of REDD in their arguments, without even suggesting any alternative for tropical forest conservation, should consider what impact they are having on forests and the environment.

  14. Then you and I are in agreement. 20+ years ago when I was in high school I had a summer job going door to door asking for money for the rainforest. At that time, tropical deforestation had been going on for decades. Nothing anyone did had any effect. Cracking down on illegal logging just postponed it – once the forest rangers or police left the loggers moved back in.

    REDD+ promises to incentivize the communities to manage and preserve their own forests. From what I can tell it is the only program that has any indication that it will prevent deforestation for at least the medium term. The people fighting against it just remind me that the environmental movement consistantly turns into a circular firing squad that prevents any positive action. Maybe that is why we are losing.

  15. I’m totally in agreement with you. I hope that we can see more positive (or at least balanced) coverage of REDD projects from REDD-monitor, FoE and Greenpeace.
    In the UK there’s a historical reason for this type of backlash to forest conservation initiatives, which has to do with forest conservation efforts in the ’70s and ’80s and a backlash to that from people (you might say “purists”) saying we should just conserve for conservation’s sake, if I understand correctly.
    Unfortunately the reality is rarely that straightforward.