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Joshua Tosteson, COO of climate conservation marketing company Everland, offers a defense of REDD+ carbon offsets.

This was originally published as an editorial opinion piece in BusinessGreen on 11 November 2020.

The recently-released United Nations Global Biodiversity Outlook opens with these words: “Humanity stands at a crossroads with regard to the legacy it leaves to future generations.”

It is clear that Rome is burning — literally — as the catastrophic loss of Earth’s forests drives the spread of two planetary cancers, now at stage four: climate change and species loss. There are no higher stakes imaginable than life on Earth.

In that light, we need to scale immediately deployable, proven solutions right now, as widely as possible. This recognition underlines the case for the immediate and widespread expansion of voluntary REDD+. While the role of carbon offsetting in addressing the climate crisis is receiving appropriate scrutiny, that fact is that voluntary REDD+ is the best, proven mechanism we have to address the intertwined climate and biodiversity crises with the needed scale and speed, while providing unprecedented community development benefits.

Yet at this moment of extreme urgency, voluntary REDD+ is facing a significant, perhaps existential threat. A number of multi-stakeholder initiatives, including the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, the Natural Climate Solutions Alliance, the Science-Based Targets Initiative, the Oxford Offsetting Principles, and others are developing principles for the credible use of voluntary offsetting for climate change mitigation, and the specific role of offsets derived from nature-based solutions — including REDD+.

These initiatives are motivated by a recognition that voluntary offsetting must play an important role on the path to climate stabilisation, and to address legitimate concerns that offsetting actually generates real, meaningful outcomes in the context of the Paris Agreement targets. We support this aim wholeheartedly.

However, we are concerned that these initiatives are de-legitimising the central importance of reducing emissions from avoided deforestation in achieving the Paris goals. We are especially concerned that if not reoriented, this de-emphasis on REDD+ will inadvertently undermine the achievement of the Paris targets, by reducing support for offset-generating projects that reduce forest loss at precisely the moment when we need much more support to protect what is left of our standing primary forests.

While this may be an unintended consequence, it would be a devastating one for the climate and for life on Earth, and we offer this article to reassert why carbon offsets resulting from forest protection must be considered a foundation of global climate change strategy. Here’s why:

The science is absolutely clear: we cannot stabilise the climate without eliminating deforestation completely

The primary importance of avoiding deforestation for achieving climate stabilization, in line with the Paris Agreement goals, has now been clearly established. Deforestation is the second largest single cause of climate change, accounting for about 5.5Gt of emissions per year or 14 per cent of total emissions. With only a small fraction of the world’s critical high carbon stock forests under any form of legal protection, at least 260 Gt of additional irrecoverable carbon in natural ecosystems are now urgently at risk of release to the atmosphere.

Recent analyses confirm that we will simply be unable to achieve the Paris targets without eliminating deforestation altogether. For example, two of McKinsey’s three recently-developed decarbonisation pathways to hold global temperature rise below 1.5C require deforestation to decline by 91 per cent by 2030 from 2016 levels; the third requires deforestation to decline by 77 per cent. This is now settled science.

Avoided deforestation is a the most impactful nature-based solution for achieving the Paris Agreement targets

It is by now well recognised that nature-based climate solutions can provide more than a third of the carbon reductions needed to keep global warming below 2C, the target agreed at the Paris climate talks. However, the critical role of avoided deforestation within the family of nature-based solutions has not received the same attention.

In fact, avoided deforestation is by a long measure the most significant cost-effective natural climate solution, making up 43 per cent of the total potential (1.5Gt per year) of all natural climate solutions. As this analysis of Griscom et al shows clearly, avoided forest conversion offers more than twice as much of the cost-effective climate mitigation potential as reforestation. At the same time, it is also well-recognised that forest conservation delivers significant biodiversity and ecosystem services co-benefits.

Beyond the cost-effectiveness of avoided deforestation and its co-benefits, the canonical 2017 study assessing the overall potential of natural climate solutions found that avoiding the loss of one hectare of mature, carbon, and biodiversity-rich forest avoids about 100 tons of carbon emissions, while tropical reforestation typically sequesters about only three tons of carbon per hectare annually. This means that 30 times more land, or 30 more years, are needed for reforestation to generate the same climate mitigation outcome as avoided deforestation.

This is critically important: The IPCC has assessed that global CO2 emissions must reach net zero by 2050 to keep the risk of >1.5C warming below 66 per cent. In order to achieve that goal, cumulative emissions between 2018–2050 must not exceed 420Gt, and global emissions will need to be reduced by about 28Gt per annum by 2030. While recent analyses show that the restoration of forested land could, over time, remove and store up to 200Gt of carbon, the climate impacts would only accrue over decades. More importantly, these removals would be more than entirely negated should the previously-cited 260Gt of irrecoverable carbon in forests (carbon that cannot be re-absorbed within the 30-year time still remaining to achieve the IPCC imperative for global carbon neutrality) be released.

This highlights why offsets from avoided deforestation are so critical in context of the Paris targets, and why arguments favoring ‘removals’ of all kinds over avoided emissions from REDD+ are fundamentally misguided. This is not to say that removals are not a key element of our global climate strategy — they clearly are. But their emphasis at the expense of avoided emissions, particularly from forests, is clearly inconsistent with what the science says is needed to achieve climate stabilisation.

High-impact voluntary REDD+ has delivered significant benefits, and is ready for immediate scaling

Voluntary REDD+ projects that adhere to high quality 3rd party standards, and operated by experienced mission-driven developers, have demonstrated the effectiveness and full potential of this mechanism. For example, the seven high impact REDD+ projects in Everland’s portfolio alone are protecting a total of almost 1.6 million hectares of the Amazon rainforest, Congo rainforest, South Asian rainforest, and the wildlife-rich African dry forests of Kenya. These projects are generating over 14 million tonnes of 3rd party-verified CO2 emissions reductions from avoided deforestation every year. Over their lifetime to date, they have generated a total of over 75 million tonnes of 3rdparty-verified CO2 emissions reductions. Over the next 30 years, these projects alone are projected to prevent a total of 420 million tonnes of CO2 from being emitted.

These high-impact REDD+ projects have helped to transform the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people living in some of the poorest communities in the world, delivering basic services, creating jobs and new enterprises, securing tenure rights for marginalised communities, and strengthening local governance and capacity. These projects have become indispensable sources of resilience for forest communities around the world, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, where the projects have provided critical social services and sustained jobs and livelihoods in the face of widespread economic collapse.

Experienced, proven REDD+ project developers have a significant number of projects ready for immediate development, covering threatened forests in Amazonia, the Congo, Indonesia, and other critical forests with high carbon and biodiversity stocks. These projects, once fully developed, can generate tens to hundreds of millions of tonnes of annual CO2 emissions by effectively protecting these highly threatened forests. These can be readied for development within the next three years, if private sector financing and large-scale offtake commitments are brought to bear.

The stakes are higher than just the climate

In this discussion we have focused thus far mainly on the central importance of avoided forest loss as a climate mitigation strategy. However, we are also at imminent risk of driving one million more species to extinction within decades. This loss of the living treasure of nature is irreversible: It is one part of nature that we can never “recreate.”

The loss of habitat and species is also catastrophic for humanity: Up to five billion people are likely to face shortages of food and clean water in the coming decades as natural capital and ecosystem services are eroded. Estimates of the economic value of the “services” that forests provideare astounding, and worth noting because of the almost complete lack of recognition of that value in the market. In fact, today REDD+ is the only tool we have to recognize the value of standing threatened forests to humanity.

There is no time left

As noted above, the IPCC assessment warns that we have only 30 years left to achieve net-zero emissions globally, and only 10 years left to reduce annual emissions by approximately 28Gt. We have also established the central importance of forests for meeting that imperative. In that light, the current status of forest protection is an absolute red alarm, both for climate and for life on Earth.

Recent analysis reveals that only 6.5 per cent of the high ecological value tropical forests still remaining have any formal protection and, given recent rates of forest loss, are at substantial risk. Of particular alarm is the fact that only 12 per cent of special ‘hotspot’ areas — ones containing high carbon stocks, and which serve as the last strongholds of highest biodiversity and ecosystem intactness — are formally protected. These areas are concentrated in the western Amazon basin, central Africa and southeast Asia — all locations prioritised for high-impact REDD+ and the sites of a number of the REDD+ projects Everland represents.

And as the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity (2011–2020) draws to a close, the United Nations Environment Programme’s just-released Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, presents a sobering outlook: None of the globally-agreed 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets — benchmarks for improvements across drivers, pressures, the state of biodiversity, the benefits derived from it, and the implementation of relevant policies and enabling conditions — have been achieved. As a result, nearly one quarter of species in well-assessed taxonomic groups are threatened with extinction.

We will not stabilise the climate without a substantial and immediate increase in voluntary private sector investment to protect forests

A reduction of global emissions by 28Gt/annum by 2030 is equivalent to more than 1.5x the total emissions from oil consumption in 2019. It is clear that voluntary carbon offsets will need to play a huge role in achieving this target globally, requiring at least a 15x scale-up vs. 2019 levels. And much of that must come from avoided emissions from reduced deforestation, as discussed above.

While there has been significant investment in capacity-building for public-sector REDD+, the unfortunate reality today is that action to reduce deforestation in the public sector remains devastatingly slow. Less than half of pledged public sector financing for REDD+ has been disbursed to date, and there is little confidence that it will begin to flow at a higher rate in the near future. Meanwhile the private sector has been matching or exceeding public sector payments for REDD+, and is demonstrating its readiness to expand these investments with the speed and at the scale needed.

Given the extreme urgency of this moment, the private sector is the last best chance we have left to halt forest loss and with it, the catastrophic release of greenhouse gases and loss of up to a quarter of all of the species remaining on Earth. We therefore need to make it easier, not harder, for companies seeking to take responsibility for their impacts on climate change and biodiversity to do so, while there is still a chance to do so.

It is, in fact, crucial to ensure that voluntary offsetting is done in a credible way, one that actually leads to substantive climate outcomes instead of greenwashing. We support the efforts of the initiatives cited above to establish principles and guidelines to ensure that this happens. However, we cannot forget that as you read this paper, Rome is literally burning: We need to remove barriers and disincentives to mobilising private sector investment in forest conservation. However right now, some of these initiatives may be creating new ones. It would be a tragic result if this resulted in reduced demand for the proven mechanism of REDD+, one that is well positioned to scale both on the ground and in the market at precisely the moment when it is needed the most.

It is clear that investing in high quality offsets generated by avoided deforestation is one of the most impactful actions that can be taken right now, both for the climate and for life on Earth. We therefore urge all actors engaged in developing guiding principles for offsets to recognize this, and to develop those principles with a primary goal of expanding investments in effective forest protection. Life on Earth, literally, depends on it.