Metrics Matter: Effective carbon projects need more than GHG accounting

Thursday, 23 May 2024

A recent publication highlights why forest carbon projects should measure a range of outcomes in carbon projects beyond greenhouse gas impact. 

Debates on the quality and effectiveness of carbon projects persist- this time the microscope is focused on reducing deforestation and the impact on forest-dwelling communities. Earlier this month, the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) published its Global Assessment Report on International Forest Governance at the United Nations Forum on Forests. The report highlighted that existing success metrics are insufficient to capture the full impact of projects on communities, which can create misleading conclusions. We at Calyx Global recognize that the long-term sustainability of nature-based carbon projects cannot be effective without forest governance that prioritizes community participation and fair benefit sharing and agree that today’s metrics do not sufficiently account for this. 

IUFRO’s analysis of the development and trends of forest governance over the last 14 years highlights a critical gap –  a lack of focus on the human dimension of forest governance, particularly regarding its impact on local and indigenous peoples. The report highlights that carbon projects for forest conservation like REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries) often operate at the expense of local and indigenous communities, with reports of inadequate benefit sharing and even forced evictions being commonplace. These issues are not sufficiently addressed by the VCM. In our most recent blog post on environmental and social safeguards, we note gaps in the same areas – forced evictions, intangible cultural heritage and benefit sharing – within the coverage of leading carbon standards.  

IUFRO’s report also highlights how despite the increased involvement of civil society and indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) in forest governance over the years, there are still clear social inequalities that preclude these projects from being fully participative or delivering on their promises of improved livelihoods. From this, they conclude that "forest conservation carbon offset projects not only fail to reduce deforestation meaningfully but also have not done enough to benefit the communities that inhabit the areas they claim to protect."

Moving Forward: Reframing success and prioritizing people

The report also identifies a key problem in how the effectiveness of forest governance and nature-based carbon projects is assessed, namely, the over-reliance on hectares and deforestation rates as the primary indicators of project success. These metrics fail to capture the full scope of ecological, economic and social benefits provided by effective forest governance and reflect limited awareness of the needs and demands connected to forests globally. The study calls for a reframing of forest governance goals and the development of new methods to measure and model progress more comprehensively, incorporating elements of sustainability, equity and justice.

Based on the findings of the report, and our experience assessing the impact of carbon projects on communities, we believe it goes too far to say that all nature-based carbon projects are failing to benefit communities. In fact, through our SDG ratings, we have found that nature-based projects like REDD are actually some of the most diverse in their contributions to Sustainable Development Goals.

One of the main issues is the way these benefits are measured. Evaluation metrics often neglect social and environmental risk mitigation measures and benefit sharing, in favor of GHG performance. It is not enough to simply trust that the livelihoods of local people will be automatically improved if deforestation and forest degradation decline. Socioeconomic baselines are needed, as well as strengthened risk mitigation measures and improved indicators for reporting positive and negative impacts.

Calyx Global entirely agrees with the need to pay more attention to the human dimension in the VCM as a whole, not just in nature-based projects. We have spoken on other occasions about market failures, such as the failure of some carbon crediting programs to promote verified reporting of contributions to the SDGs, or the limited attention safeguards have received in previous years. In recent months we have seen improved safeguard measures being implemented in several standards, and we applaud this progress. As a carbon market, we need to continue to open the aperture of quality, to include how projects impact people and the places they inhabit.

About the author

Calyx Global

This article includes insights and input from multiple experts in Calyx Global.