Conserving forests through carbon credits

As well being a major cause of biodiversity loss, the destruction and degradation of tropical forests is also one of the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Resulting concerns about the contributions of deforestation to climate change have led to the creation of various platforms, the most notable of which is the United Nations REDD+ programme, whereby carbon stocks in tropical forests can be sold as carbon credits to governments and private companies seeking to offset their emissions quotas. This has led to many tropical forests, for the first time, being economically more valuable left standing than if they were cut down, as the value of the carbon stocks they sequester typically runs to millions of dollars. We are seeking to establish REDD+ and similar carbon-trading projects in several of the sites in which we work, most notably in the forests of Buton Island, Sulawesi, where carbon stocks have been valued at $20 million, and a similar project in Cusuco National Park, Honduras, which has been valued at $70 million.

Current funding requirements: auditing for the REDD+ project on Buton Island will require £10,00 in external funding, while the collection of required socio-economic and ecosystem services data for the REDD+ project in Cusuco National Park (with subsequent auditing) will require £40,000 in external funding.

“Monitoring and surveillance of the rich biodiversity within Cusuco National Park by Operation Wallacea is vital. Unless we know what species are present and how populations are changing we are powerless to effect positive change. Our data will be central to any REDD+ style carbon trading-based conservation projects which offer a potentially effective means of protecting biodiversity and mitigating the impacts of climate change by preventing forest loss”

Dr Neil Reid, Queens University Belfast

The destruction and degradation of tropical forest ecosystems has many negative effects, including biodiversity loss, reduction of ecosystem services such as water provision and crop pollination, and erosion of indigenous cultures. Additionally, cutting down and burning tropical forests leads to the release of the carbon stocks sequestered within them. It has been estimated that tropical deforestation releases about 4.9 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per year; this equates to about 8% of all emissions globally, and is more than the entire CO2 outputs of the EU.

Concerns about the contributions of tropical deforestation to climate change, and the establishment of subsequent international agreements such as the 2005 Kyoto protocols and the 2016 Paris agreement, have seen the launch in recent years of several carbon-focussed funding platforms seeking to protect tropical forest carbon stocks, the most notable of which is the United Nations REDD+ programme. These programmes seek to put a financial value on forests supporting high carbon stocks to ensure they are economically more valuable left standing than if they were cut down and burnt.

The financial mechanisms for these platforms lie in the concept of carbon credits. All countries which have signed up to binding international treaties on climate change, as well as private businesses within those countries, have been issued targets with regards to how much CO2 they are permitted to emit. Some of these emission quotas can, however, be offset by buying carbon credits in a REDD+ or similarly accredited scheme which is safeguarding carbon stocks elsewhere in the world. This has led to the possibilities of extensive funding, driven by both the public and private sector, becoming available for the protection of tropical forests for the first time.

There are a number of stipulations with regards to what consists of a suitable site for a carbon trading conservation project. First, the area must support high carbon stocks, although this is usually the case with humid tropical forests. Secondly, the carbon stocks within the forest must be demonstrably at-risk from deforestation. Finally, to qualify for a REDD+ project, a potential study area must also be shown to possess high biodiversity and high provisioning of ecosystem services; this is to ensure funds are directed to areas which have the most overall conservation need.

The Trust works in several sites which fit these criteria, but the two most immediate priorities are the Forests of Buton Island, South-east Sulawesi, and Cusuco National Park, Honduras. The forests of both these sites sequester vast carbon stocks and support rich biodiversity, including many species that can be found nowhere else in the World.  They also provide vital ecosystem services to surrounding communities. However, both these sites experience high rates of illegal deforestation and are in urgent need of protection. Cusuco National Park has already lost 9% of its forested area since we began working in the area 15 years ago, while the forests of Buton are disappearing at a rate of 1189 hectares per year, releasing an annual total of 304,458 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The Trust has already supported work which has calculated the carbon stocks and biodiversity inventories of both these study sites, and in the case of Indonesia has also funded the design of a series of alternative livelihood projects that could be implemented with REDD+ funds to halt deforestation on the island. We now require funding to have the Buton Forests REDD+ project audited; a process that is required before carbon credits from the area can be sold on the international market, and to fund a large-scale socio-economic survey in Cusuco National Park so that appropriate alternative livelihood projects can be identified for the proposed REDD+ project here.

Once these last steps are complete REDD+ projects in both these sites will be ready for implementation, and should be able to generate very substantial funds to protect the forests of Buton and Cusuco. Potentially, carbon stocks within the Buton forests study area could be worth up to $20 million, while the value of a REDD+ project in Cusuco has been valued at $70 million.

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