Last changed: 08 March 2023
Diameter of tree

Additionality: a term used to determine whether an intervention has an effect when compared to a baseline. Certified carbon credits have to prove additionality, but this is often questioned. For example, a project can claim that their tree planting activities add trees that would not have grown in the place where they plant them. But how do we know for sure that trees would not have been planted or naturally started to grow in a certain place? The risk of leakage is also a problem in estimates of additionality. It can be difficult to prove additionality in a project and it is often estimated based on various assumptions that could be false.
This analysis of tools applied in 2016 found that only 2% of thousands of CDM projects fulfilled the criteria of being “additional”: Cames et al. 2016. “How additional is the Clean Development Mechanism? Analysis of the application of current tools and proposed alternatives” https://ec.europa.eu/clima/sites/clima/files/ets/docs/clean_dev_mechanism_en.pdf 

Carbon credits: A carbon credit is tradable certificate or permit representing the uptake or avoided emission of a set amount of carbon dioxide or the equivalent amount of a different greenhouse gas measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent  (tCO2e). Credits can be more or less reliable depending on project set-up and the standards used. A credit can be bought in order to support carbon projects, or alternatively as part of ‘offsetting’ (see below) and used to claim e.g. ‘carbon neutrality’.

Carbon forestry: Projects that aim to store carbon through tree planting, restoration or forest conservation and sell the carbon credits generated. Tree planting projects span from monoculture tree plantations aiming to sell timber in 10-20 years from planting, to agroforestry projects that work closely with farmers who plant trees on their own land. Restoration projects aim to naturally or through tree planting regenerate landscapes and forest conservation can through various means try to avoid deforestation.

Carbon leakage: when a carbon sequestration activity in one place inadvertently triggers an activity that counteracts the carbon effects of the initial activity – for example if a forest is protected from logging under “avoided deforestation” carbon forestry, and this triggers the logging of a different forest instead.

Carbon neutral/Climate neutral: Carbon neutral refers only to Co2 while climate neutral refers to all greenhouse gases – but these terms are often used interchangeably with claims of ‘net-zero’ emissions. However, while The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has launched a net-zero standard (see under net-zero below), there is no similar regulation or validation of carbon neutral or climate neutral claims. This means that a claim of carbon neutrality may be mainly based on counterbalancing CO2 emissions with carbon offsets without necessarily having reduced emissions to any larger extent – such ‘carbon neutrality’ does not need to adhere to the high reduction ambitions set by the SBTi net-zero initiative. This may conceal the need for deeper emissions reductions that are in line with what the science requires for the world to keep global warming to 1.5°C.

Carbon offset (‘climate compensation’): a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions – or an increase in carbon storage (e.g., through land restoration or the planting of trees) – that is used to compensate for emissions that occur elsewhere. The view that this is ‘compensation’ or can ‘offset’ the emission so that it can be counted as ‘neutralized’ has been strongly questioned by science that points to that avoided emissions are difficult to count and prove the ‘additionality’ (see above) of e.g. tree planting while carbon removal through trees cannot be seen as permanent in the way that fossil fuel emissions add a permanent Co2 increase to the atmosphere (see ‘permanence’ below). The language of offsetting is misleadingly suggesting that the harm done by the carbon emission has been neutralized. See scientific references under the subheading “offsetting”. In order to decarbonize quickly enough to meet climate goals, investments in carbon forestry should be done in addition to and not in the place of reducing emissions as much as possible. The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) emphasizes that the term “offset” is not preferable, and that “climate mitigation beyond a company’s value chain must be on top of, not instead of, a company’s own deep emission cuts.”

Livelihoods: A person's livelihood is their means of securing the basic necessities of life (e.g. food, water, shelter). Livelihood activities can be for example paid work, running a business, engaging in agriculture or collection and use of natural resources. Livelihood activities require a person to have access to various assets and the capability to use them (access can include e.g. land rights, assets can be various skills, land, money or tools, and capabilities can include strength to perform certain activities such as farming, the ability to use certain tools etc.). A person’s age, gender, place in the sibling order, class, caste, social relations etc. can determine her or his ability to have access to assets and being able to use them.

Net-zero: The term ‘net-zero’ is discussed in the IPCC (2018) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. The report states that to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels we must reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. This means that the carbon emitted in 2050 is counterbalanced by various negative emissions – hence the term net-zero instead of zero. For the businesses sector, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) developed the first global, science-based standard for companies to set net-zero targets (using a specific definition of ‘net-zero’ and in a standardized way). Through the SBTi, companies can commit to net-zero, which includes setting validated near-term and long-term science-based targets consistent with limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C. However, the SBTi does not validate ‘carbon neutrality’ claims. The net-zero standard requires that companies invest above and beyond, not instead of, deep emission cuts in line with science. The SBTi net-zero standard is however a voluntary initiative that has no legal or formal power and companies may claim to aim for net-zero without being validated by SBTi. Also, there has been critique of the SBTi by scientists showing that the standard is not enough to stay within the remaining carbon budget due to temperature overshoot not being reversed by the current targets and the fact that target setting methods and lack of transparency leaves significant loopholes

Permanence: how durable the carbon sequestration from a carbon forestry project is. For example, if trees planted do not survive or are soon cut down, the carbon is again released into the atmosphere, making such a project have little permanence. Oxford University set principles for credible carbon offsetting in 2020, where they argued that only carbon removal with geological storage (in rocks) of the carbon removed fulfils the criteria of permanence: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2020-09-29-oxford-launches-new-principles-credible-carbon-offsetting 

Shifting cultivation:  a system of cultivation in which a plot of land is cleared (often through targeted use of fire – swidden cultivation) and then cultivated for a short period of time, and then allowed to revert to producing its normal vegetation while the cultivator moves on to another plot. Shifting cultivation has often been seen as deforestation or a destructive practice, however this depends on how and where it is done. Historically shifting cultivation resembles natural life cycles where forests burnt and regenerated. When populations practicing shifting cultivation are pressured by other land use interests, they may end up not being able to let the land regenerate fully before having to use it again, which is reducing the sustainability of this practice.

Standard: A program run by a third party organization that defines and sets up rules and criteria that carbon offset projects must meet in order to sell carbon credits stated to be certified by that standard.

Spill-over effects: when a carbon sequestration activity in one place triggers activities in other places that enhance the carbon sequestration effects. For example, if a project encourages planting of trees in agroforestry systems in one village, and those living in a nearby village also end up planting trees, without being part of the carbon forestry project.