How nature is more than a carbon sink

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  • Discussions on carbon credits at COP26 highlighted how difficult it is to apply a global standard to complex regulatory and physical landscapes in various geographies.
  • Carbon credits should not be viewed in isolation: forests, biodiversity and the communities that support nature-based climate solutions are also an essential part of the equation.
  • Restorasi Ekosistem Riau is not only one of the last intact peatland forests, it is also an example of successful integration of biodiversity, community and climate strategies and actions.

Carbon credits are a commodity to be valued and traded. They are also a weather bell for investment rates in climate and nature. Discussions on carbon credits at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow were ultimately inconclusive, but they highlighted how difficult it is to apply a global standard to complex regulatory and physical landscapes in various geographies.

Too often, discussions about carbon credits miss this larger point. Whether the product of avoidance, reduction or elimination, carbon credits should not be viewed in isolation: forests, biodiversity and the communities that support nature-based climate solutions are also essential. an essential part of the equation.

When forests retain more carbon than they emit, they become a carbon sink. Carbon sinks serve as a store of carbon that can be measured and valued, and then potentially offset by emissions generated by activities elsewhere.

But that’s only half the story. In landscapes like the tropical swamp forests of Indonesia, where protecting natural forests is vital for biodiversity and wildlife, it is also imperative to support communities that depend on forests for ecosystem services and livelihoods. While the relationship between the two is complex in science, carbon, biodiversity and community are indivisible on the forest floor.

Landscapes that offer multiple advantages

The APRIL Group’s peatland forest restoration project, Restorasi Ekosistem Riau (RER), is one example. The project has been registered with Verra and is potentially one of the largest carbon projects in the world, generating around 6.8 million tonnes of carbon credits per year. But over 150,000 hectares – an area the size of Greater London – located on the Kampar Peninsula and neighboring Padang Island in Riau Province, the RER is a complete landscape offering multiple benefits.


After many years of forest restoration and active protection work in partnership with organizations such as Fauna & Flora International, the real biodiversity benefits that derive from a landscape approach have emerged. These include a growing number of species with 823 species of plants and animals recorded in the restoration zone in 2020 – many of which are listed by IUCN as of conservation concern. This figure was up from 797 the previous year. Sumatran tigers, including one rescued and reintroduced to the landscape last year following a multi-stakeholder operation, and other rare native wildlife, such as the flathead cat, have been spotted and studied on camera traps.

RER biodiversity

Editable hawk-eagle

Image: Prayitno Goenarto (RER)

The communities living in and around the restoration forest play a vital role, supported by respectful engagement and education. From improving fishing practices to maintaining subsistence catches while increasing water quality within the restoration zone, to sustainable production of forest honey and other forest products for sale commercial, employed by forest rangers to guard against encroachment, wildlife poaching and fires, RER has its own economic and ecological ecosystem, where communities are engaged as active partners.

The RER also has the potential to provide a unique location to facilitate cutting-edge scientific research. Its eco-research camp and other facilities on the edge of the restoration area provide access to scientists from all over the world to conduct their own research. The site can serve as a laboratory for tropical peatland science, exploiting and improving existing data on greenhouse gas emissions, hydrology, and landscape-level flora and fauna surveys.

The protection and restoration of the forest area contributes multiple values, and the stored carbon will make an important contribution to the financing of this important work. RER’s production-protection approach, where the conservation area is surrounded by a ring of plantations, means that the sustainable plantations support the technical and financial capacities necessary for large-scale conservation and restoration. In this case, the value generated by this carbon pool will be reinvested in further restoration and conservation work.

Catalyst for landscape protection

The reason the RER is so important isn’t just because it’s one of the last intact peatland forests. It is also an example of the successful integration of biodiversity, community and climate strategies and actions, and private-public-NGO partnerships.

Unfortunately, biodiversity does not have such commitments as the climate target of 1.5 degrees Celsius or an equivalent unifying ‘net zero’ target. This makes it more difficult to monitor and evaluate progress in a globally accepted way. The post-2020 global biodiversity framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the work of the Science Based Targets Network to align SBTs with the sustainable development framework and goals may provide more answers. But that is no reason to delay action. Restoring and protecting forests is widely recognized as one of the most cost-effective methods of reducing carbon. And the benefits of well-managed forest protection and restoration for biodiversity are clear.

Activities demonstrating their ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere or prevent CO2 emissions are verified by an independent standard and issued in the form of carbon credit certificates (representing one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent).

Standards are organizations, usually NGOs, that certify that a particular project meets its stated goals and stated volume of emissions. Some of the most important standards include the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism, Verra, the American Carbon Registry, the Climate Action Reserve, and the Gold Standard.

Carbon credits can be grouped into three main categories: avoidance projects (they completely avoid emitting greenhouse gases), reduction projects (they reduce the volume of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere) and elimination (they remove greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere).

Forest avoidance projects or programs known as REDD + (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) prevent deforestation or destruction of wetlands. Other examples include soil management practices in agriculture that limit greenhouse gas emissions, such as projects to avoid emissions from dairy cows and beef cattle through different diets.

Removing carbon from the atmosphere can include afforestation and reforestation projects and the management of wetlands, which, as they grow, transform CO2 into solid carbon stored in their trunks and roots.

The reduction category includes projects that primarily focus on reducing the demand for energy efficiency, including stove projects, energy efficiency or the development of energy efficient buildings.

International Voluntary Carbon Markets (VCMs) provide a platform for individuals and organizations to offset / balance their unavoidable and residual emissions by purchasing and withdrawing (undoing in a registry after which it can no longer be sold) of credits. carbon emitted by sellers who overshoot carbon – either because they have avoided emissions or have undertaken additional activities that reduce or eliminate emissions.

While compliance markets are currently limited to carbon credits from a specific region, voluntary carbon credits are significantly more fluid, not constrained by boundaries set by nation states or political unions. They can also be accessed by all sectors of the economy instead of a limited number of industries. The Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets Task Force estimates that the carbon credit market could be worth more than $ 50 billion by 2030.

Carbon credits can be a catalyst for landscape protection and restoration, funding additional forest conservation and restoration, as well as offsetting emissions from business activities. While the value of carbon credits can be expressed in dollars, equal consideration to nature’s biodiversity and community health unleashes real value and commitment to conservation. It is the investment in restoration and conservation that generates carbon value and offers a return on biodiversity gain where the two are deeply interconnected. Completely decoupling carbon from its context – treating it as a commodity – can undermine the biodiversity and community engagement that maintain and increase its value.

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