How Effective & Efficient Are REDD+ Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts

How Effective & Efficient Are REDD+ Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts

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Grace Smoot

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Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) is a United Nations-backed framework established under the Paris Climate Agreement to combat global deforestation. REDD+ projects have faced criticism in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. So, we had to ask, how effective and efficient are REDD+ carbon offsets?

REDD+ carbon offsets are effective and efficient as they immediately reduce CO2 emissions from potential baseline deforestation. However, REDD+ offsets can lack additionality and permanence, projects only reduce emissions during project lifespans, and there can be a high rate of carbon re-emission.

Keep reading to find out how efficient and effective REDD+ carbon offsets are, how you can offset your carbon footprint with REDD+ offsets, what the pros and cons of REDD+ offsets are, how REDD+ offsets can mitigate climate change, and what better alternatives to REDD+ offsets are. 

The Big Picture of REDD+ Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets play a crucial role in reducing our carbon footprint, the amount of CO2 emissions associated with an individual or an entity. 

Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gasses and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period

Merriam Webster

Basically, a carbon footprint is the amount of carbon emitted by an activity or an organization which includes GHG emissions from fuel that we burn directly and GHG emissions from manufacturing the products that we use.

One way to reduce our carbon footprint is via the use of carbon offsets. These are reductions in GHG emissions that are measured in tons of CO2 equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms. 

Carbon offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by planting trees”

Oxford Dictionary

Essentially, carbon offsets are reductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere. They do not directly reduce your carbon footprint, instead, they make others reduce their carbon footprint to compensate for your carbon footprint. 

Carbon offsets reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions beyond what we each can achieve through individual actions. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) carbon offsets are a type of avoidance carbon offset, which involve measures aimed at preventing carbon from being released into the atmosphere. 

REDD+: a framework created by the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) to guide activities in the forest sector that reduces emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, as well as the sustainable management of forests and the conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.”

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

The REDD+ mechanism places economic value on the actions a country takes to reduce deforestation and preserve forests. This is done either through direct payments or through the use of REDD+ Result Units (RRUs). RRUs are a specific type of carbon credit, tradable certificates or permits that give companies, industries, or countries the right to emit 1 tonne (1,000kg) of CO2 or the equivalent amount of a different greenhouse gas (GHG). 

REDD+ is the only emissions reduction program and standard included in the Paris Climate Agreement and approved by over 190 countries. 100% of the sale of RRUs go back to the countries that are actively protecting rainforests.

How Do REDD+ Carbon Offsets WorkREDD+ carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset that focus on the practice of reducing deforestation and forest degradation.REDD+ projects reduce CO2 emissions by putting financial value on forests, thereby avoiding carbon emissions that would result from deforestation.
How Effective Are REDD+ Carbon Offset Programs at Mitigating Climate ChangeREDD+ carbon offsets help reduce deforestation
REDD+ offset baseline calculations have a high degree of uncertainty
The majority of REDD+ offsets only protect the baseline 
REDD+ offsets often lack permanence
How Efficient Are REDD+ Carbon Offsets at Reducing CO2 EmissionsREDD+ carbon offsets chiefly preserve existing forests
REDD+ carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective
REDD+ offsets only avoid CO2 emissions during their project life span and can have a high rate of carbon re-emission

REDD+ efforts focus on protecting existing forests from deforestation and degradation. REDD+ varies in effectiveness and efficiency due to limitations involving additionality and permanence.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the big picture of REDD+ carbon offsets? Check it out in this article here: “What Are REDD+ Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work? The Big Picture

Here’s How Effective and Efficient REDD+ Carbon Offsets Are

In terms of effectiveness, REDD+ carbon offsets help reduce carbon emission through a reduction in deforestation; however, baseline emissions calculations can have a high degree of uncertainty. The majority of REDD+ projects only protect the baseline and often lack permanence. 

In terms of efficiency, REDD+ carbon offsets chiefly preserve existing forests and are relatively cost-effective; however, they also only avoid emissions during the project’s life span and they can have a high rate of carbon re-emission.

How Effective Are REDD+ Carbon Offset Programs at Reducing CO2 Emissions

Effectiveness involves completing a task with a desired outcome, typically a successful one. 

Effective: producing the result that is wanted or intended; producing a successful result

Oxford Dictionary

REDD+ offsets are effective because they help reduce deforestation; however, baseline emissions calculations can have a high degree of uncertainty. Most REDD+ projects also only protect the baseline and often lack permanence, making them less effective than other methods of carbon reduction. 

REDD+ Carbon Offsets Help Reduce Deforestation

Deforestation, the purposeful clearing of forested land, is the main threat to our forests. It occurs at approximately 10 million hectares (~25 million acres) per year and is responsible for roughly 15% of our annual global carbon emissions.

REDD+ is a mechanism by which countries can generate verified emissions reductions by reducing deforestation and preserving existing forests.

More specifically, REDD+ is used to refer to the following 5 activities:

  1. Reducing emissions from deforestation
  2. Reducing emissions from forest degradation
  3. Conservation of forest carbon stocks
  4. Sustainable management of forests
  5. Enhancement of forest carbon stocks

REDD+ carbon offsets put a financial value on rainforests and the carbon stored within them. Landowners are either compensated directly for not clearing or degrading forests, or carbon credits are issued for the amount of avoided carbon emissions.

In short, REDD+ offsets place a financial value on the carbon stored within our rainforests to incentivize against deforestation and future forest degradation.

REDD+ Offset Baseline Calculations Have a High Degree of Uncertainty

The number of carbon credits issued by a REDD+ project depends on how much carbon emissions are avoided due to the prevented deforestation. This is calculated by determining the baseline emissions, or the business-as-usual carbon emissions resulting from deforestation and forest degradation in the absence of efforts to reduce those emissions. 

To identify the baseline, the calculations use the deforestation rate in a nearby area over the past 10 years. After this baseline is determined, the calculations then determine the number of carbon emissions avoided by a certain project and issue an equivalent number of carbon credits.

However, because we cannot know exactly what would happen to a specific forest in the absence of a REDD+ project, calculating the baseline has a high degree of uncertainty. And an inaccurate baseline could lead to overestimating carbon emissions reductions and subsequently over-issuing carbon credits. This gives the illusion that we are avoiding more carbon emissions than we actually are.

In short, we cannot know exactly what would happen to a specific forest in the absence of a REDD+ project, so it is impossible to calculate the baseline emissions with absolute certainty. 

The Majority of REDD+ Offset Projects Only Protect the Baseline

The number of carbon credits issued for REDD+ projects is based on the baseline carbon emissions of the area being protected from deforestation. Therefore, the majority of REDD+ projects only protect the baseline that was calculated.

However, even after offsetting your emissions with REDD+ offsets, you might still be a net carbon emitter. This is because you are offsetting avoided carbon emissions due to the avoided deforestation rather than offsetting your own direct carbon emissions.

In short, the majority of REDD+ offset projects only protect the baseline which can cause you to still be a net carbon emitter even after offsetting. 

REDD+ Offsets Often Lack Permanence

REDD+ carbon offset projects must be permanent in order to be effective. This means there must be a full guarantee against reversals of carbon emissions for the foreseeable future. 

But nature-based solutions, like REDD+, lack permanence because they are reversible. For REDD+ projects, carbon is stored in biomass (trees). Once a tree is protected by a REDD+ project, it should never be removed in order to guarantee permanence. But trees die naturally, and environmental disasters such as floods, fires, changes in land use, and climate change itself can negate any permanence. 

When comparing REDD+ to other methods of carbon removal like direct carbon capture (DCC), in which carbon is removed from the atmosphere permanently, we find that REDD+ projects are less effective at reducing carbon emissions. 

In short, nature-based solutions like REDD+ lack permanence because they are reversible.

How Efficient Are REDD+ Carbon Offset Programs at Mitigating Climate Change

Efficiency involves performing a task while using the least amount of resources and producing the least amount of waste possible.

Efficient: working in a way that does not waste a resource (= something valuable such as fuel, water, or money)

Cambridge Dictionary

REDD+ offsets are efficient because they chiefly preserve existing forests and are relatively cost-effective; however, they also only avoid emissions during the project’s life span and they can have a high rate of carbon re-emission, making them less effective than other methods of carbon reduction.

REDD+ Carbon Offsets Chiefly Preserve Existing Forests

REDD+ offsets chiefly protect existing forests from deforestation, rather than creating new forests first and then protecting those forests.

Protecting existing forests rather than creating new ones is more time effective because finding suitable land and physically planting the trees to create a new forest takes time. Carbon emissions can also be reduced immediately when you protect existing forests, whereas creating new forests requires waiting for the trees to first reach maturity before they can begin to reduce carbon emissions.

In short, REDD+ offsets chiefly protect existing forests, which is more time and cost-effective than other methods of carbon emission reduction. 

REDD+ Carbon Offsets Are Relatively Cost-Effective

In general, combating deforestation is an expensive process, with $163 billion being just one estimate of the cost of REDD+ and transforming land usage by 2030.

But REDD+ carbon credits themselves are typically more cost-effective than other categories of offsets. For example, REDD+ offsets from leading providers (i.e., REDD.plus, Pachama, Wildlife Works, and Terrapass) cost less than $50 per ton of CO2. Compare this to direct carbon capture offsets which can cost anywhere from $250-$650 per ton of CO2

In short, REDD+ offsets are relatively cost-effective when compared to other methods of carbon emission reduction.

REDD+ Offsets Only Avoid CO2 Emissions During Their Project Life Span and Can Have a High Rate of Carbon Re-Emission

REDD+ offsets are avoidance carbon offsets, practices that seek to prevent carbon from being released into the atmosphere. REDD+ projects are developed to protect forests over a certain period of time, and once that time span is over, the forest is no longer protected and may be subjected to deforestation. 

REDD+ projects tend to have relatively long lifespans because it takes time to develop projects, monitor project impacts, and report verified emissions reductions

Also, REDD+ carbon offsets often lack additionality, the idea that carbon emissions reductions would not have occurred without REDD+ interventions, and permanence, or full guarantee against reversals of carbon emission for the foreseeable future. 

High rates of carbon re-emission can occur either from inaccurate calculations of baseline emissions affecting additionality or from the risk of environmental disasters such as floods, fires, changes in land use, and climate change itself negating permanence. 

In short, REDD+ offsets avoid emissions only during project lifespans and REDD+ projects may have high rates of carbon re-emission due to a lack of additionality and permanence.

How Could you Offset Your Own Carbon Footprint With REDD+ Carbon Offsets

The market for carbon offsets was small in the year 2000, but by 2010 it had already grown to represent nearly $10 billion worldwide. The Ecosystem Marketplace predicts the VCM can grow to $50B by the year 2050. The voluntary carbon offset market (VCM) is where everyday consumers can purchase carbon offsets to offset their carbon emissions. 

On the VCM, REDD.plus provides carbon credits that are verified by the UNFCCC and registered under the Paris Agreement. But there are others protecting rainforests and preventing further deforestation across the globe. Below are our favorite REDD+ offsets.

REDD+ Carbon Offset CompanyQuick Facts
REDD.plusCarbon offset purchases support UNFCCC-verified REDD+ projects around the globe. REDD.plus is a central registry and exchange for REDD+ Result Units, a type of carbon credit. 
PachamaCarbon offset purchases support third-party certified carbon offset projects including the Manoa, Pancajá Pará, and Chocó-Darién Bioregion REDD+ projects in Brazil and Colombia.
Wildlife WorksCarbon offset purchases support third-party certified carbon offset projects including The Kasigau Corridor, Mai Ndombe, and Southern Cardamom REDD+ projects in Kenya, Cambodia, and Colombia respectively.
InfinteEARTHCarbon offset purchases support the third-party certified Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve REDD+ project in Borneo. 
BiofilicaCarbon offset purchases support third-party certified REDD+ projects that protect six areas of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.
World Land TrustCarbon offset purchases from their Carbon Balanced Programme supports REDD+ projects in Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Vietnam. World Land Trust protects threatened habitats by creating nature reserves on land they purchase. 
TerrapassCarbon offset purchases support the third-party certified Cordillera Azul National Park REDD+ project in Peru.
CarbonfundCarbon offset purchases support third-party certified carbon offset projects including the Purus, Russas-Valparaiso, and Envira Amazonia REDD+ projects in Brazil.
ClearCarbon offset purchases support Quality Assurance Standard certified carbon offset projects including the Brazilian Amazon Forest and Lower Zambezi Forest REDD+ projects in Brazil and Zambia.
Related: Are you interested in learning more about the best REDD+ carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Best REDD+ Carbon Offsets

What Are The 5 Pros and 4 Cons of REDD+ Carbon Offsets

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) carbon offsets reduce deforestation and forest degradation, mitigate climate change, preserve biodiversity, help maintain the water cycle, and contribute to the advancement of modern medicine. They also allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.

However, REDD+ offsets often lack additionality and permanence, and determining baseline carbon emissions is difficult. They also do not reduce your own carbon emissions.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the pros and cons of REDD+ carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “REDD+ Carbon Offsets: All 5 Pros and 4 Cons Explained

What Are the 5 Pros of REDD+ Carbon Offsets

REDD+ offsets have various pros that make them effective at reducing deforestation, preserving rainforests, and preventing carbon stored in trees from entering our atmosphere.

5 Pros of REDD+ Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: REDD+ offsets reduce deforestation and forest degradationREDD+ refers to the following 5 activities:
Reducing emissions from deforestation
Reducing emissions from forest degradation
Conservation of forest carbon stocks
Sustainable management of forests
Enhancement of forest carbon stocks
#2: REDD+ offsets protect our natural carbon sinksRainforests act like a giant carbon sink, capable of absorbing 2.4 billion tons of CO2 every year and producing approximately 20% of our oxygen. REDD+ offsets put financial value on rainforests and the carbon stored within them, incentivizing their protection.
#3: REDD+ offsets preserve biodiversityREDD+ offsets protect rainforests and the biodiversity contained within them, which in turn maintains healthy ecosystems.
#4: REDD+ offsets help maintain the water cycleREDD+ offsets help maintain the water cycle because they are capable of storing large amounts of water. Clouds created via evapotranspiration also provide precipitation for regions across the globe.
#5: REDD+ offsets help advance modern medicineREDD+ offsets protect rainforests, from which over 25% of our modern medicines are derived and where there are thousands of plants yet to be studied.

What Are the 4 Cons of REDD+ Carbon Offsets

Understanding the drawbacks of REDD+ offsets is important when implementing this strategy on a large scale in order to mitigate climate change.

4 Cons of REDD+ Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: REDD+ offsets often lack additionalityREDD+ offsets often lack additionality because what would have happened without REDD+ intervention cannot be measured exactly
#2: REDD+ offsets lack permanenceREDD+ offsets lack permanence because they are reversible. Trees die naturally, and environmental disasters such as floods, fires, changes in land use, and climate change itself can negate any permanence. 
#3: Identifying the baseline for REDD+ projects is not accurateWe cannot know exactly what would happen to a specific forest in the absence of a REDD+ project, so it is impossible to calculate the baseline emissions with absolute certainty. This can lead to an overestimation of carbon emissions reductions and an over-issuance of carbon credits.
#4: REDD+ offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashingIf emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, this could lead to greenwashing, when the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not. 

What Are Better Alternatives to REDD+ Carbon Offsets

If used correctly, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) carbon offsets can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions. They have the potential to instigate meaningful environmental change and protect our rainforest communities. 

However, we can’t let this method be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. REDD+ carbon offsets help avoid carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere, but they do not help remove what is already there. REDD+ must be used in conjunction with direct carbon reduction measures until the industry has time to develop accurate baseline identification methods and can ensure additionality and permanence. 

These direct reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household carbon footprint:

Reduce your travel carbon footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle carbon footprint:

  • Switch to renewable energy sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global carbon emissions and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs mean fewer carbon emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

Because REDD+ offsets are an indirect way and not a direct way of reducing emissions, they alone will not be enough to reduce global carbon emissions significantly. Direct measures of emission reductions, such as reducing individual energy use and consumption, are better alternatives to REDD+ offsets. 

Related: Are you interested in learning why reducing your carbon footprint is so important? Check it out in this article here: “4 Main Reasons Why Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Is Important

Final Thoughts

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) offsets are effective because they help reduce deforestation; however, the majority of REDD+ projects only protect a (difficult to establish) baseline, and projects often lack additionality and permanence. REDD+ offsets are efficient in the sense that they are time and cost-effective; however, they only avoid carbon emissions during the project lifespan and may have high rates of carbon re-emission.

Carbon offsets can instigate meaningful change, but they should not be seen as the only solution to climate change. They are effective at reducing CO2 in the short term, but in the long term, they fail to reduce CO2 enough. 

When used in conjunction with direct CO2 reduction measures, carbon offsetting can be much more effective. We should reduce our own carbon footprint as much as possible first, and only then choose the most effective carbon offsets.

Stay impactful,

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Grace Smoot

Grace loves to research and write about all things related to climate action and sustainability. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Biology and works as an Environmental Survey Technician. Outside of work, she loves to work out, play soccer, and take her dog for long walks.

Did you know that the internet is a huge polluter of the environment? But fortunately not this site. This site is powered by renewable energy and all hosting-related CO2 emissions are offset by three times as many renewable energy certificates. Find out all about it here.

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