Carbon released from fossil fuels is not equivalent to the carbon stored in trees.

“It is a mistake to think that emissions from fossil fuels can be negated by increasing or protecting the storage potential of forests and other land based carbon.”

So says a new report from Brussels-based NGO FERN. The report exposes the myth that fossil fuel emissions can be offset by planting trees or preserving forests. Titled, “Misleading Numbers: The Case for Separating Land and Fossil Based Carbon Emissions”, the report can be downloaded here.
Loy Yang

The report summarises the difference between greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and those from land use change:

Land use change, through both natural causes and human impact, accounted for approximately 12 per cent of annual global CO2 emissions over the past decade. However, there are fundamental differences between ‘terrestrial’ and ‘fossil’ carbon pools and their impact on the climate. Emissions from fossil carbon are irreversible for all practical purposes as it will be millennia before fossil carbon released by human activity is removed from the terrestrial carbon cycle. Land-based carbon stocks such as forests, on the other hand, are highly reversible: their carbon is held for years or centuries at the most, and is easily returned to the atmosphere. In addition, while immense volumes of fossil carbon are held in the earth, there is a natural limit to the amount that can be held at any one time by terrestrial ecosystems.

In a press release, Kate Dooley, the author of the report, says,

“Rather than focusing on measuring carbon in land, we need energy policies that reduce emissions, and land policies that address the underlying causes of forest destruction.”

The danger of the focus on forest carbon is that it neither reduces deforestation, nor reduces emissions from fossil fuels. As Imogen Badgery-Parker notes in a recent post on the CIFOR Forest Blog,

Experience shows that having policies for indigenous rights and participation, biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of forest resources has helped conserve many forests, even when the policies aren’t fully carried out.

Badgery-Parker quotes Hugo Che Piu, president of Peruvian NGO Derecho Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, who points out that in Peru’s Readiness Preparation Proposal under the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility the funding streams proposed for monitoring of carbon are 20 times the amount for monitoring social and environmental impacts.

FERN’s new report includes the following section on REDD:

REDD+ was agreed at the UNFCCC as part of the 2010 Cancun Agreements, to “slow, halt and reverse forest cover and carbon loss”.[135] The concept of REDD+ was first proposed to the UNFCCC in 2005, following the exclusion of avoided deforestation from the CDM due to concerns that large variations in accounting for reduced emissions from avoided deforestation would undermine the environmental integrity of the KP, given irresolvable issues of leakage, permanence and additionality. Land use activities in the CDM were restricted to afforestation/reforestation, with the issuing of temporary credits to account for non-permanence. The original proposal attracted a great deal of support, due largely to the proposal to account for avoided deforestation at the national level. National accounting negates the risk of project leakage, i.e. avoided deforestation in one area relocating to another area of the country. This does not address concerns of international leakage, however, or issues of permanence and additionally.

REDD+ is proposed as a performance-based mechanism where developing countries are incentivised to reduce deforestation and forest degradation, conserve forests and enhance existing forest carbon stocks. Negotiations are ongoing as to what constitutes ‘results-based actions’ for payments, with a divergence in opinions about whether results are defined as tons of CO2 quantified against a reference level, or based on a broader package of social and environmental considerations. Some experts have raised concerns about the effectiveness of financial incentives for complex structural problems such as deforestation.[136]

The quantification of emissions reductions for REDD+ has three elements: the form of accounting (MRV); the use of a baseline to establish additionality; and adjustments to the baseline to reflect differences in national circumstances (adjustment factors), and as a way of dealing with permanence, leakage and uncertainty (discounting, conservative accounting).

Up until COP 19, technical discussions about MRV and reference levels have remained the major focus for REDD+ negotiators, with the level of verification (international or domestic) proving a deeply divisive issue. The debate hinged on the level of certainty required before reductions can be counted in climate mitigation targets, or offset against emissions reductions in fossil fuel use,[137] with a compromise eventually being agreed that keeps verification in line with developing country commitments under the Convention.

Establishing a meaningful baseline. Whether forest or land sector accounting could ever be credible depends very much on what is measured and what it is compared to. Measuring performance in terms of results defined as tonnes of CO2 necessitates establishing an emissions reference level, in order to determine whether the emissions reductions differ from a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, i.e. what future deforestation would have occurred in the absence of incentives from REDD+. A variety of options have been put forward for determining reference levels, from historical (based on ten-year data sets), to modelled projections to account for future variables. Economist Alain Karsenty and colleagues referred to this as “the thorny problem of the baseline”, which he says remains unresolved for REDD+ as all the proposals fail to circumvent the ‘counterfactual scenario’ of what would have happened in the absence of the policy incentives. They concluded that no approach can reliably determine future deforestation rates, and baselines will to a large extent be politically determined, as was seen during negotiations on LULUCF.[138]

Is carbon the most useful metric to measure? As previously discussed, carbon flux is not easy to measure, and the cause of changes to fluxes cannot always easily be identified. A country might claim emission reductions based on reduced deforestation that in fact had nothing to do with their policy initiatives under REDD+ or similar incentive mechanisms — they may simply be benefiting from an unexpected ‘windfall’ caused by other socio-economic factors. By rewarding good luck, rather than well-constructed policy initiatives, the approach may be a disincentive to well-formulated forestry protection programmes.[139] Some suggest that a more pragmatic approach would be to circumvent the baseline issue by defining performance criteria that go beyond quantified emission reductions.[140] La Viña et al. have questioned whether REDD+ will ultimately “go the path that LULUCF did under the KP of entertaining drawn-out negotiations towards a strict, rules-based accounting regime”.[141]

As negotiations on REDD+ continue to unfold, many governments and NGOs argue for a broader definition of performance. They suggest an approach that defines results in terms of improved policies and actions that address the drivers of forest loss,[142] rather than a narrow focus on emissions reductions as the sole determinant of performance. While some governments argue that the ‘safeguards’ (as agreed to at COP 16 in Cancun) will ensure that REDD+ will target environmental and social outcomes in spite of an incentive structure focused on carbon, others voice concern over the narrow carbon focus. Some suggest aligning results-based payments with other success criteria, such as the implementation of polices and measures to improve governance, respect international obligations on human and indigenous peoples’ rights, and address the drivers of forest loss. They argue this would incentivise actions that most effectively reduce forest loss. Meanwhile, a growing movement of environmental and indigenous peoples’ organisations, as well as governments such as Bolivia, reject the REDD+ mechanism entirely, saying it is based on the commodification of forests, rather than respect for the rights of forest peoples, and will not curb forest loss.


[135] UNFCCC Decision 1/CP.16.

[136] Karsenty A, Tulyasuwan N, Ezzine de Blas D (2012) Financing Options to Support REDD+ Activities. Report for the European Commission DG Climate Action. CIRAD.

[137] See the FERN Forest Watch Special, January 2013 for a fuller explanation of this.

[138] Alain Karsenty et al. 2012.

[139] Pirard R (2008) The Fight against Deforestation (REDD+): Economic Implications of Market-Based Funding. Paris: IDDRI.

[140] Karsenty et al. 2012.

[141] La Viña A, Labre L, Ang L, de Leon A (2012) The Road to Doha: The future of REDD-Plus, agriculture, and land-use change in the UNFCCC. FIELD Working paper.

[142] See, for example REDD+: An incentive structure for long-term performance, published by a group of NGOs including Rainforest Foundation Norway, FERN, ClientEarth and Greenpeace.

Full Disclosure: FERN is one of the organisations that funds REDD-Monitor. Click here for all of REDD-Monitor’s funding sources.

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