Evaluating the success of carbon projects aimed at protecting tropical forests and benefiting local livelihoods: January 2019 final blog entry

31st January 2019

The following blog is written by David Coomes, Professor of Forest Ecology and Conservation, Department of Plant Sciences (project lead for the CCI Collaborative Fund project ‘Evaluating the success of carbon projects aimed at protecting tropical forests and benefiting local livelihoods’).

Almost a decade since the establishment of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), this study investigates the extent to which REDD+ projects are delivering on the promise of co-benefits and the elusive ‘triple-win’ for climate, biodiversity, and local communities. The project aimed to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of projects designed to avoid deforestation and degradation, assessing whether they have reduced deforestation whilst benefitting local livelihoods and biodiversity. 

Projects certified under the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) and the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA) standard provide detailed reports at validation and verification stages, and these formed the basis of assessments. Of the 58 projects we assessed, 46 had verification reports which established how many verified carbon units (VCUs) should be issued for sale on international carbon markets. It was the smaller projects that never made it to verification; perhaps because the costs of carbon accounting were prohibitive given the returns. Ongoing work, led by a Cambridge PhD student, is assessing deforestation in project areas and matched control areas, providing more objective comparisons than possible with data extracted from VCS reports. 

A second study used an in-depth content analysis of 25 subnational REDD+ project documents to assess the extent to which REDD+ project objectives align with Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets and evaluates the reporting of progress towards meeting these objectives. There is a gap between aspiration and reported progress at the goal level, and for each project: on average, only a third of SDGs that are being targeted by REDD+ projects are showing ‘improvement’  (Milbank et al. https://www.mdpi.com/1999-4907/9/10/589). 

The project found that the international market for carbon trading is not currently working well. Whilst many projects might be profitable if carbon was valued at $30 per tonne but REDD+ projects earn nearer $5 per tonne. Transactional costs are significant when VCUs attract such low values. These transactional costs could be reduced considerably by moving to remote sensing platforms for monitoring carbon, rather than relying on networks of permanent plots, and those cost would be transferred to the governments of developed countries.  

Sustainable development projects are often criticised for lacking adequate procedures by which to monitor their success. REDD projects are supposed to be different: the detailed reporting needed to achieve VCS and CCBA certification provides a robust framework for evaluation. These certifications are an improvement on the status quo. But the plethora of methods used to calculate business-as-usual scenarios and the lack of key information in project reports make objective comparison of successfulness extremely challenging. Our analysis shows that there is considerable potential for the CCBA to do more to ensure that real improvements are made to livelihoods and biodiversity, by aligning REDD+ projects more strongly with global development agendas.

Initial findings from this project have also contributed to the formulation of a new project, funded by the Frank Jackson Trust, looking at the effectiveness of interventions in the tropics.

For more information on the CCI Collaborative Fund project, please visit the project page.