Apart from failure to sequester enough carbon, the CDM projects in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana also failed to engage the local community, the study stated. Photo: University of Leeds

Forest carbon projects: In vogue, but are they effective?

New study shows how two such high-cost projects in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have failed to sequester large amounts of carbon   

One of the key negotiation topics at the 26th Conference of Parties (COP) at Glasgow this November will be Article 6, which deals with carbon markets. Countries will aim to draft a rulebook for market mechanisms—a goal that remained unachieved at COP25 in Madrid. 

In essence, the finalisation of these rules will allow countries that have overachieved their pledges under the Paris Agreement to sell credits to nations that have underachieved. Achievements could be in terms of emissions reduction or renewable energy capacities or forest restoration. This mechanism would replace the clean development mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol, the predecessor to the Paris Agreement. The Kyoto Protocol operationalised the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

A crucial question, however, is whether the CDM actually works. 

A study published in August 2021 provides empirical evidence of how two afforestation-related CDM projects—one in Haryana and another in Himachal Pradesh—have failed in meeting carbon sequestration goals. The author stated that the Haryana and Himachal projects have sequestered only 37% and 3%, respectively, of the carbon they had planned to sequester. Results also pointed to the lack of meaningful community engagement. More than half the participants left the Haryana project before completion.

“There are many flaws with forestry CDM projects, from design to implementation to evaluation, and I have yet to come across a successful forestry [CDM] project that has achieved its intended objectives,” said Ashish Aggarwal, author of the paper and a professor at Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow. 

There are also other issues such as lack of transparency and impacts on the rights and livelihood of locals. In Himachal Pradesh, afforestation activities were undertaken on private-, public- and community owned lands, whereas in Haryana, the land was privately owned. “In rural India, community owned lands are, very often, pasturelands,” Agarwal explained. And so, fencing off of such lands for plantation activities would adversely impact cattle herders. This issue was particularly problematic in Himachal Pradesh. “Many people had pulled down the fences because of livelihood implications,” he noted. 

The study also pointed out that participants of the CDM project in Himachal Pradesh “did not report any significant gain in livelihoods from the project.” Additionally, many of the gram panchayats, village council heads or project participants did not know about accrued carbon revenues. 

The Haryana project faced similar issues of lack of benefit flow to local communities despite the project design stating various benefits such as fruits, timber and fuel wood in addition to revenues related to carbon sequestration. This raises serious questions about meaningful community engagement in CDM projects. 

Agarwal added that given failures to meet carbon sequestration goals and costs involved vis-a-vis the benefits, forestry CDM is “a doomed concept.” He is also the author of a 2012 paper, which showed how three forestry CDM projects in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu were “economically unsustainable” because of high opportunity cost of land and labour, and delayed and low benefits for local people. Other studies from Nepal, too, have pointed to economically infeasible. 

In most situations in India, forestry projects “are implemented by government agencies with, at best, minimal attention to local communities,” said Forrest Fleischman, an assistant professor of forest resources at the University of Minnesota. For example, even projects with Joint Forest Management designs have been criticised for being skewed towards interests of the forest department and for failing to provide opportunities for and uphold rights of local communities. 

Fleischman is one of the authors of a September 2021 paper that evaluated many large-scale tree planting programmes in Himachal Pradesh and found “no evidence that tree-planting projects secured substantial benefits for carbon mitigation or livelihood support.” Reasons for failure include the selection of agro-pastoralist landscapes, which limit the space for plantation activities and bad incentive structures for forest officials that focus on simplified targets instead of efforts to sustain longer-term socio-ecological benefits via plantation activities. 

“Numerous studies from India and around the world demonstrate that investing those directly affected by a forestry project with significant decision-making authority improves outcomes, although this may not be the only factor contributing to project failure or success,” Fleischman added. 

Forest carbon projects are fundamentally flawed

Forest carbon projects are in vogue. This April, at the Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by Joe Biden, multinational corporations entered into a coalition with the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and Norway to mobilise at least $1 billion “to protect tropical forests.” The coalition is based on the Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) under UNFCCC. REDD+ aims to halt deforestation, i.e. reduce CO2 emissions via creating a financial value for carbon stored in forests.

But REDD+ initiatives, too, have been criticised for failing to meet project goals. 

“We find an overall minimal impact of REDD+ in reducing deforestation on the ground thus far,” concluded a 2017 study that assessed 23 REDD+ initiatives in Brazil, Peru, Cameroon, Tanzania, Indonesia and Vietnam. In a recent report for Mongabay, critics of REDD+ pointed to grave failures that legitimised deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. There are also issues of credibility given how assessments of REDD+ projects in the Brazilian Amazon pointed to overstated emissions reductions

In addition to CDM and REDD+, there’s also Improved Forest Management (IFM). Here, too, there are concerns. For instance, consider how many carbon offset projects under California’s IFM programme burned in wildfires this year. 

“With any carbon sequestration project, there are always permanence risks. One disaster—be it a wildfire or flooding—can wipe out all [carbon sequestration] gains made over several years,” said Harjeet Singh, senior adviser, Climate Action Network International (CAN). In a recent statement related to COP26, CAN called for the reassessment of CDM projects and methodologies before transitioning to Article 6 mechanisms. “We need to look at forests as a public good and not as a marketable product,” Singh said.

“Restoring forests is actually difficult, and the project-based mechanisms set up under the UNFCCC are not necessarily the most effective means,” Fleischman explained. 

This reporter sent a request to the UNFCCC regarding criticisms of CDM projects. This copy will be updated if and when a response is received. 

Path ahead

One way to improve forest carbon projects would be to incorporate robust evaluation techniques to ensure highly regulated carbon markets. Such techniques must also address concerns about conflict of interest, Agarwal said, noting how verifiers of CDM projects are often hired by project proponents. 

As for project design, instead of supporting individual tree-planting projects as emphasised under CDM, Fleischman suggested that the focus could instead be on increasing local community control over forests and improving household living standards so that people are less dependent on forests. A March 2021 study showed how improved household living standards, such as alternatives to fuelwood and non-forest based housing material, can restore dry tropical forests in central India. 

The other alternative is delinking carbon sequestration goals from forest restoration activities. The August 2021 paper also pointed out how forest carbon projects are 1.5 times more expensive than afforestation programmes owing to transactional costs. Restoration is “a lot simpler” in terms of data integrity, transparency, accountability and accountancy, Agarwal said, adding that he is “not very hopeful” about forest conservation through carbon markets in their current state.

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