By Candace Vinke, Verra’s director of nature-based innovations, and Rishi Das, Verra’s manager of technologies for natural climate solutions
Nature-based carbon projects deliver immediate reductions and reliable removals, but some buyers perceive them as short on permanence. It’s a concern we can now alleviate with new technologies and modifications to the way we manage the VCS buffer pool.
The challenge is well-known: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we must reduce emissions as quickly and deeply as possible to avoid a global ecosystem collapse, and Natural Climate Solutions (NCS), especially those in the Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Uses (AFOLU) sector, deliver that depth and speed while expanding carbon sinks. But, unfortunately, they work by locking carbon in pools that are vulnerable to fires and other disturbances that may release greenhouse gasses back into the atmosphere.
Verra manages this risk by mandating that projects certified under the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) put a certain percentage of their credits into its global buffer pool, which provides insurance against reversals over two timeframes.
First, during a project’s crediting period, which is usually about 30 years, Verra requires strict monitoring for reversals, and it cancels buffer pool credits in those rare cases where a reversal has occurred.
Second, Verra cancels all buffer credits associated with each project at the end of its crediting period to compensate for potential future reversals.
This second approach is a blunt instrument forged of necessity. When the system was created, there was no way to reliably and consistently monitor for reversals beyond a project’s crediting period, even though the climate benefits are designed to extend far beyond that.
Given the original technical limitations, canceling all buffer credits seemed the most practical way to ensure some alignment with the 100-year convention for permanence, which relates to the greenhouse gas global warming potentials (GWP) currently used in carbon crediting programs.
But the last decade has brought tremendous advancements in remote sensing, data science, and computing, which means it’s increasingly feasible to detect potential loss events and accurately quantify reversals long after a crediting period ends.
For this reason, Verra in December proposed the creation of a long-term reversal monitoring system (LTRMS) that will extend monitoring of AFOLU projects, possibly up to 100 years, and enhance the pool’s resilience over time.
Under the proposal, which is out for public consultation until February 14, Verra plans to monitor all projects in the post-crediting period while continuously stress-testing and modeling the buffer under different loss scenarios.
We can safely say that the LTRMS will yield data on the actual risk and extent of reversals well beyond current crediting periods, and this introduces a range of approaches to ensure that all VCUs issued from NCS projects will have permanence over 100 years, even if individual projects suffer reversals.
These advances are not just critical for ensuring greater integrity and confidence in nature-based credits. They will also enable the scaling up of investment in nature-based removals during a crucial time for climate action.