Recent high-profile criticism of REDD+, which claims that more than 90% of rainforest carbon credits are worthless, are based on misleading and unsubstantiated conclusions from a research article that proposed a new method of measuring the threats to forest areas.
The research article “Action needed to make carbon offsets from forest conservation work for climate change mitigation” by West et al. was published in Science in 2023 and has been used by the Guardian and other news organisations to campaign against the role of rainforest carbon credits in climate mitigation. The article presented a new method of estimating counterfactual deforestation rates (i.e., the rate of deforestation that would have occurred if projects had not been undertaken).
While the new approach has the potential to help improve the overall accuracy of the baseline for some projects, it needs to be both refined and validated to ensure that it improves on existing methodologies. Contrary to the conclusions publicised by some journalists, the new method has not yet demonstrated an improvement on current methods used for REDD+ project validation.
Forest carbon experts from the Universities of Aberdeen and Exeter, Space Intelligence, and Permian Global have written an eLetter response to the article, highlighting several of the limitations that mean the conclusions were not substantiated, and with others raising similar concerns. Those advocating new methods have a responsibility to validate any assertion that a novel approach is better than existing ones, and REDD+ project developers must use a combination of best-practice approaches. This is the forefront of applied research.
Read the eLetter here: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.ade3535#elettersSection
Read the eLetter directly in PDF HERE
Despite these limitations, many people have used the paper’s conclusions to infer negative conclusions about the majority of REDD+ projects. This has given the public an inaccurate picture of the credibility of all projects and, as a result, raised questions over the integrity of the emissions reductions attributed to the credits they generate.
It is essential that credits from projects that fall short of robust scientific standards should not be used to compensate or offset emissions. At the same time, there are many high-quality forest conservation projects that are delivering significant carbon, biodiversity, and community benefits. It is vital that the projects that are rigorously assessed as delivering across multiple criteria continue to be valued and supported.
“The media play a vital role in scrutinising the accountability of projects that seek to mitigate climate change, as we need to ensure that projects deliver on their promises. The new synthetic control method might help to improve the accuracy of deforestation counterfactuals, but before the conclusions can be trusted enough for operational deployment it first needs to be both refined to account for factors that we know are important and also to be properly validated.” Dr Andrew Cunliffe, University of Exeter.
“Projects contributing to the voluntary carbon market are highly diverse and many leverage important co-benefits for livelihoods of local communities and biodiversity. These positive outcomes for people, nature and the climate may be placed at risk if concerns over carbon accounting methods that are still in an early stage of development undermine the credibility of the entire market. Methods improve over time in response to research; academic debates surrounding these refinements should not be interpreted as evidence that all carbon projects, and the underpinning financing mechanisms, are inherently flawed.” Professor David Burslem, University of Aberdeen.
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