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Should we reframe carbon credits to better value our forests?

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By Adrien Pages

· 5 min read

Today, the world and society are lagging in the fight against climate change and in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The main task lies in decarbonizing our industries, requiring significant efforts in all sectors.

Carbon credits, a valuable mechanism for funding meaningful reforestation projects, should not be limited to a simple unit of measurement (1 carbon credit = 1 ton of CO2 captured from the atmosphere). To make it a relevant tool for protecting and enhancing our forests, biodiversity and social dimensions must be considered and evaluated at the same level as the sole criterion of carbon.

Considering the co-benefits of forests ensures quality restoration

To maximize the benefits of forests, reforestation projects must consider all their layers. In this complex ecosystem relied upon by millions, carbon capture means little without considering the long-term consequences on biodiversity and local populations.

Biodiversity in plantations is essential. Regenerating forests with a single tree type should not be eligible for carbon credits. Monoculture plantations, though useful for industry and economy, are not as environmentally beneficial as mixed forests, which are more diverse and resilient in the long term. For effectiveness, carbon credits that companies prioritize must come from diversified reforestation, which also allows for true fauna return.

Less visible than fauna and flora, the quality of soils and water is crucial for achieving rich and enduring biodiversity. Water depollution, soil restoration, and erosion prevention should also be considered for quality carbon credits.

Lastly, carbon credits should benefit those living and working near restored lands, through job creation, seed collection, nursery establishment, land preparation, or plantation monitoring. These projects can involve people living in these ecosystems, as well as NGOs and other environmental protection associations.

The development of economic projects based on forest protection, restoration, and study truly goes beyond merely purchasing carbon credits. Establishing a long-term local presence involves the most affected and concerned populations in the climate fight, while creating economic value that improves their living conditions.

Keep carbon as a measure, but pair it with co-benefits

Forests are excellent natural tools for atmospheric carbon sequestration, crucial for generating carbon credits. These credits can effectively aid in forest protection and restoration if they are of high quality. Indeed, their utilization supports ecosystem regeneration projects through carbon capture, motivated by more than just financial interests. However, for carbon sequestration to be effective and sustainable, it's essential to restore entire ecosystems. Merely planting trees is insufficient. While maintaining carbon measurement as a standard is advisable, it should be complemented by co-benefits.

A few weeks ago, we published a report titled “The future of reforestation carbon credits - Prioritizing biodiversity and socioeconomic benefits for effective carbon sequestration”. In it, we surveyed 15 different organizations involved in creating carbon credits linked to reforestation. While these organizations may have differing views on certain aspects of the definition and measurement of these credits, there is a major consensus on the importance of considering co-benefits. All stakeholders are advocating, albeit with different methods, for the inclusion of these co-benefits.

However, when discussing the incorporation of biodiversity and benefits to local communities, a recurring question arises: 'Fine, but how do we measure it?'. Indeed, measurement is possible, though precise measurement is complex and expensive. It requires R&D and investment in technologies developed in other sectors, especially military, which might be prohibitively expensive for environmental applications. I deeply wish these precise technologies were more accessible and developed for our current needs, but such high investments are not necessary at this stage.

An approximate measurement of co-benefits? No problem!

So, what to do, abandon measuring biodiversity and socio-economic benefits? I don't think so. It is possible today to identify these benefits with a low margin of error. Numerous methodologies deserve testing: using a local reference defined with a group of scientists, determining a measurement using technological tools and mathematical approximation, precise measurement on a small space and scaling up... All these solutions are feasible and likely desirable, as they will ultimately increase the quality of the restoration credits sold.

And besides, is it so bad if co-benefits can't be precisely measured? I don't think so. As long as carbon remains the measurement standard, adding co-benefits can be seen as a "bonus" simply to enhance a credit's rating, which some certifiers and tools already do.

A study published on December 15th in Nature called for shifting the risk from landowners to carbon offset buyers by reevaluating payment methods. This approach could be adopted, asking carbon buyers to take the "risk" of co-benefits. Investing significantly more at the project's start for much better results. Since we are on the topic of remarkable studies, I must mention the one conducted by Emily Warner, a postdoctoral researcher in ecology and biodiversity science at the Department of Biology, University of Oxford, proving that forests with multiple tree species are 70% more effective as carbon sinks than monoculture forests (Frontiers).

In conclusion, prioritizing qualitative and transparent carbon credits, equally considering the carbon-biodiversity-social triptych, necessarily involves revaluing the forest. We must give new meaning to forest protection and restoration in its entirety to best engage local actors, carbon credit certification bodies, and companies. Helping them better consider forest diversity in their climate strategy. Carbon credits will thus become a real mechanism for forest protection, not just a means to offset emissions.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Adrien Pages is co-founder and CEO of MORFO, a company that has developed a unique technology for large-scale ecological restoration of forest ecosystems.

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