Does Planting Trees Match the Requirements of Additionality or Not?

We recently receive questions about the additionality of planting trees in general and through EcoMatcher specifically. One reason for this seems to be the publication of results of a research by the European Union on the additionality of carbon offset programs. This research, concluded that 85% of projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) either fail to reduce CO2 emissions in a measurable way or they over-estimate their impact.

Additionality is a key concept in determining whether projects have an impact or not. describes the concept of additionality in the context of carbon reduction quite well: “Would the emissions reductions have occurred, holding all else constant, if the activity were not implemented as an offset project? Or more simply: Would the project have happened anyway? If the answer to that is yes, the project is not additional.”

The EU research shows that many projects under CDM, would have happened without “CO2 compensation” based funding, in which case they cannot claim to be additional.

An example of this is a windmill project in a village in rural India. On the outset, it appears great: by investing money in the windmill, a village gets access to carbon neutral electricity. It turns out however that these windmills could be built using funding from the local community only. External funding is not required to realize the project. On top of this, this project does not have any carbon compensation effect, because the village previously had no reliable electricity source to begin with. As a result, the windmill does not reduce any carbon emissions, because there previously were none.

Because of the results of this research, the EU is expected to change requirements for projects that are used to offset CO2 emissions after 2020.

Are trees planted through EcoMatcher additional?

When planting trees, you are actually not reducing emissions of CO2 but increasing sequestration of CO2, resulting in a similar net effect. Almost the same definition holds: Would the CO2 sequestration have occurred, holding all else constant, if the activity were not implemented as an offset project?

Simplifying it a bit, the question becomes whether the tree planting organizations would have planted trees without external funding. That question is easily answered: The tree planting organizations that EcoMatcher works with, are all dependent on external funding and without it they are not able to continue (to help) plant trees.

While by that definition trees planted through EcoMatcher could be considered additional by itself, in practice it is a bit more complicated. Especially in cases where the tree planting organization helps farmers plant the trees instead of planting them themselves, you could question whether these farmers would try to plant trees without the help of the NGO. And if they would, would they be successful and would the trees sequester the same amounts of CO2? The tree planting organizations EcoMatcher works with are rather critical about their own carbon reduction results. For example, some have strict protocols to calculate the actual average contribution of individual trees. Also, each tree needs to be newly planted in a unique location. This means trees that are planted to replace cut down trees, are not considered contributing to CO2 reduction.

Often the additionality question only includes the carbon offset element of a project. However, in practice there is much more involved than just planting trees. If you include the educational and social aspects that the NGOs address, the additionality question of their projects is definitively answered with a “Yes”.

EcoMatcher’s platform makes it easier for businesses to identify genuine and successful projects that make a difference by planting trees, by offering a selection of carefully vetted sustainable causes in which they can invest. A genuine additionality cause, I’d say.

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