In June 2016, I wrote a post based on a paper published in the International Forestry Review titled, “The ‘virtual economy’ of REDD+ projects: does private certification of REDD+ projects ensure their environmental integrity?”.
The authors of the paper, Coline Seyller, Sébastien Desbureaux, Symphorien Ongolo, Alain Karsenty, Gabriela Simonet, Jean-François Faure, and Laura Brimont, looked at the baseline scenario in two REDD projects: Mai Ndombe in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena project in Madagascar.
In both cases, the authors found that the baselines were unreliable in determining what might happen in the absence of the REDD project. They wrote that, “the baseline scenarios in REDD+ projects amount to untestable guesses”.
I concluded my post about the paper with the following two paragraphs:
The authors of the paper are careful to talk about project developers “optimizing the parameters” or using a “convenient baseline scenario”.
Fraud would be a better way of describing what REDD project developers are doing when they set bogus baselines. The voluntary certification systems, such as VCS, are complicit in this fraud.
Thanks, Chris, for the very useful piece and pointer to this important article.
I’m wondering, however, whether the charge of “fraud” at the end of your piece doesn’t actually let REDD proponents off the hook.
If baselines are indeed unverifiable, then there can be no distinction between “fraud” and “nonfraud”, and it doesn’t make sense to say that any particular baseline, or baselines in general, are fraudulent.
To say that REDD accounting is fraudulent implies that with some reform, and some honest work on the part of VCS and others, it might be made nonfraudulent. This is simply not the case with offsets. The situation is unfortunately far worse than that.
Similarly for related words like “bogus” and “nonadditional”. If baselines are unverifiable, there can be no effective criteria for distinguishing between “bogus” and “nonbogus” baselines. And to say that a project is “nonadditional” implies that with some effort, it might be made “additional”, but again this is not the case. If there can be no criteria for distinguishing between “additional” and “nonadditional” projects, we might as well just come out and say frankly that there is no such thing as additionality and we ought to jettison the whole concept. After more than a decade, I am still waiting for most academic critics of REDD to take what seems to me to be this obvious step.
You might dig in your heels and say that REDD project developers ALWAYS set bogus baselines because there isn’t any other kind of baseline, and that therefore ALL REDD projects are fraudulent. But to my mind that would be to drain the concept of fraudulence of its content. If everything is fraudulent, then nothing is fraudulent. To attribute the contradictions in REDD accounting to “fraudulence” (or “non-additionality”) is to underestimate wildly the absurdity of the enterprise.
I wrote to Larry, who I’ve known for many years through our work with the World Rainforest Movement, asking him to clarify this sentence: “If everything is fraudulent, then nothing is fraudulent.” It seemed to me that if baselines cannot be verified, then REDD is a fraud. That does not imply that VCS can work harder to verify baselines, because baselines cannot be verified. It just means that REDD is a fraud.
Here’s his response:
There’s a distinction between saying that REDD is a fraud and saying that any particular baseline is a fraud. I agree with you that REDD is a fraud, or totally bogus across the board. But I don’t agree with the claim made by vast numbers of academic and policy authors that the fraudulence or bogusness of particular REDD projects is due to their non-additionality, i.e. to fraudulent or badly-calcuated baselines. This is not only wrong, but tends to encourage the further proliferation of REDD.
One way of saying this is to say that REDD is bogus, or a fraud, because it is premised on the existence of something that does not exist, namely additionality. Since no intelligible distinction could ever be made out between additionality and non-additionality, that means there is no such thing as non-additionality, either.
So when academic and policy authors say that this or that REDD project is bogus or a fraud because it is non-additional, they are talking nonsense. No REDD project could ever be either additional OR non-additional. To put it yet another way, the problem is not “bad baselines” but the concept of counterfactual baselines itself. That reality does more than invalidate any particular REDD project. It invalidates REDD (and all other offsets) as a whole.
Whatever their intentions might be, such authors are in practice encouraging the further development of REDD because they are implicitly endorsing the basic premise of REDD (and other offsets) that there is such a thing as additionality/nonadditionality. They are, in other words, implicitly denying what you and I agree on, that REDD as a whole is bogus or a fraud.
The Seyller-Karsenty article you did the post about is a good example. The authors do a good job of showing that, intentionally or unintentionally, you can set pretty much whatever baseline you like — that there are a lot of pressures to set profitable baselines but no standards to constrain you that would enable you to distinguish between additionality and nonadditionality. They suggest not only that VCS has failed to “remove doubts” about the two projects’ “additionality”, but that VCS will never be able to do so. The authors even admit that “there is a kind of irreducible uncertainty regarding what the ‘right reference scenario’ should be” (i.e., no one can give a criterion for distinguishing additionality from non-additionality, i.e., that “additionality/nonadditionality” is not a useful concept for distinguishing fraud from non-fraud).
And yet they fail to follow through. They claim that setting the “right” baseline is after all nothing more than a “challenge” that someone someday will be able to meet (p. 234). They insist that there is such a thing as “non-additionality” (“… in-depth analysis of large-scale renewable and non-renewable CDM energy projects in India and China revealed a lack of additionality for these projects (Michaelowa and Purohit 2007, Shishlov and Bellassen 2012)” (p. 234)). They say that baselines can be “inflated” (p. 243) — as if some sharp distinction could be made out between “inflated” and “noninflated” baselines. For them, additionality is merely an “issue” (p. 244) to be resolved at some unspecified time in the future. And so they end up maintaining their position as part of the colonialist offset establishment, like so many other academics and NGOs.
I’ve never been able to figure out whether this phenomenon is due to native timidity (“Oh dear! If I tell the truth, my technocrat friends will stop talking to me, my articles will not be published in the journals, and I will lose my job and respectability. And anyway, doesn’t the UN tell us that there is such a thing as additionality? I guess I’d better go on lying.”) or to intellectual confusion, or something else entirely. But whatever the reason, it’s been going on way too long.