February 2022 | Interview with Lars Hein, professor of Ecosystem Services at Wageningen University 

More and more companies are realising that they have to do something to combat climate change. In addition to setting CO2 reduction targets, offsetting residual emissions has also expanded enormously in recent years. Contributing to a forest project that generates carbon credits is an effective way to do this. However, there is also criticism. Are we achieving enough with offsetting? And how do you know if the capturing of credits is done properly? 

To gain more insight into how forest projects work, we interviewed Lars Hein, Professor of Ecosystem Services at Wageningen University. He has already visited numerous projects in his career and is keen to discuss them in detail. 

Why are forest projects important to achieve the Paris climate goals? 

Because about 10% of all CO2 emissions worldwide come from deforestation in tropical areas. In addition, an important part is caused by the degradation of peat areas, which can oxidise and burn. At the same time, forests play an important role in solving the climate problem, because they capture CO2. 

© Lars Hein

Why is compensation mainly done with tropical forests? 

There are three reasons for this. First of all, tropical forests are under considerable pressure. This has many negative side effects, such as the loss of biodiversity. It is important that the disappearance of forests is stopped. In addition, forests grow faster in the tropics, so CO2 gains can be achieved at a faster rate. Thirdly, in the tropics, there is often little money for sustainable forest management. That makes compensation a welcome addition. 

What types of offsetting are there? 

There are two different ones: 

  • Reforestation – Replantation in an area of poor conditions or where the forest has been completely eradicated. 
  • Forest conservation – Protecting forests that would otherwise be cut down. That is also called REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) 

What are your own experiences with projects? 

I work with partners in Indonesia where I have also visited many forest projects. Strikingly, the projects for which carbon credits have been sold are among the best-protected areas in the country! Biodiversity is high, as many animals have already been captured in photos of ‘camera traps’. People initially pay for the CO2 credits but as an extra effect, you see that the forest and biodiversity are intact. 

 The cooperation with the local population is also improving. This is important as the people living in the area should be able to find work there, for example by involving them in the project as a forest manager or firefighter. Projects generate money that can be spent locally, for example with agroforestry (a combination of agriculture and trees) or by making and selling rattan products. The condition is that the lives of people improve and that everything is in consultation with the local population. In order to guarantee the biodiversity and social aspects of the project, more and more VCS forest projects are using the Climate, Community and Biodiversity (CCB) Standard. 

    “We have to keep explaining that compensation is not THE solution but is part of the solution to the climate crisis” 

How reliable are forest projects? 

Ten years ago, you could question some compensation projects, but the market has matured in the meantime. Now, forest projects are certified according to accepted standards such as VCS. All credits are centrally and publicly registered to make sure that they are only sold once. Satellite images are also becoming increasingly accurate. You can make monitoring very concrete this way: for example, this piece of forest generates 10,000 credits and they have all been captured over the past 5 years. 

Each project takes measures to combat forest fires, for example by extra surveillance during drought. But if a piece of forest burns down, it will be compensated by a so-called mandatory buffer where part of the credits have been deposited in. The riskier your project, the greater this ‘insurance’ should be. 

    “The projects for which carbon credits have been sold are among the best-protected areas in the country” 

What are your own experiences with projects? 

I work with partners in Indonesia where I have also visited many forest projects. Strikingly, the projects for which carbon credits have been sold are among the best-protected areas in the country! Biodiversity is high, as many animals have already been captured in photos of ‘camera traps’. People initially pay for the CO2 credits but as an extra effect, you see that the forest and biodiversity are intact. 

The cooperation with the local population is also improving. This is important as the people living in the area should be able to find work there, for example by involving them in the project as a forest manager or firefighter. Projects generate money that can be spent locally, for example with agroforestry (a combination of agriculture and trees) or by making and selling rattan products. The condition is that the lives of people improve and that everything is in consultation with the local population. In order to guarantee the biodiversity and social aspects of the project, more and more VCS forest projects are using the Climate, Community and Biodiversity (CCB) Standard. 

    “We have to keep explaining that compensation is not THE solution but is part of the solution to the climate crisis” 

Compensation has also been criticised. How can we deal with that? 

It is very important to state that offsetting is no excuse for not having to do anything else. Most CO2 emissions are caused by fossil fuels. Those emissions have to come down quickly; that is priority number 1. It is important that you make an effort every year to take reduction measures. If you as a company cannot already reduce all emissions, you can use carbon credits. In addition, it is very reasonable to pay the local population to protect the forest and for alternative income without logging. The forest provides a service to the rest of the world, which then needs to finance that. 

Why is transparency essential? 

Companies that work with carbon credits have an obligation to indicate what happens with them: which forests and how many hectares are protected with the credits they buy, and what standards have been used. This goes for climate, local population, and biodiversity. A standard such as VCS ensures transparency and shows what the investment yields. Furthermore, it is important to continue to explain that compensation is not THE solution, but is part of the solution to the climate crisis. 


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