Unholy trinity of leakage, permanence and additionality

13 03 2012

I begin with the proverbial WTF? The title of this post sounds a little like the legalese accompanying a witchcraft trial, but it’s jargon that’s all the rage in the ‘trading-carbon-for-biodiversity’ circles.

I’m sure that most of my readers will have come across the term ‘REDD‘ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), which is the clever idea of trading carbon credits to keep forests intact. As we know, living forests can suck up a lot of carbon from the atmosphere (remember your high school biology lesson on photosynthesis? Carbon dioxide in. Oxygen out), even though climate change is threatening this invaluable ecosystem service. So the idea of paying a nation (usual a developing country) to protect its forests in exchange for carbon pollution offsets can potentially save two birds with one feeder – reducing overall emissions by keeping the trees alive, and ensuring a lot of associated biodiversity gets caught up in the conservation process.

The problem with REDD though is that it’s a helluva thing to bank on given a few niggly problems essentially revolving around trust. Ah yes, the bugbear of any business transaction. As the carbon credit ‘buyer’ (the company/nation/individual who wishes to offset its carbon output by ‘buying’ the carbon uptake services provided by the intact forest), you’d want to make damn sure that all the money you spend to offset your carbon actually does just that, and that it doesn’t just end up in the hands of some corrupt official, or even worse, used to generate industry that results in even higher emissions! As the buyer, of course you want to entice investors to give you lots of money, and if you bugger up the transaction (by losing the resource you are providing), you’re not likely to have any more investors coming knocking on your door.

Enter the unholy trinity of leakage, permanence and additionality.

This horrible jargon essentially describes the REDD investment problem:

  1. LEAKAGE is the unanticipated increase in emissions outside an avoided-deforestation (REDD) project’s accounting boundary. In other words, the original forest area that was targeted for protection under the agreement remains intact, but the deforestation that would have otherwise occurred merely gets shifted to an adjacent forest, so the net effect is the same (i.e., no emissions reduction).
  2. PERMANENCE is ensuring that your investment (i.e., the forest) remains intact for a sufficient period into the future to account for the carbon being offset by the buyer.
  3. ADDITIONALITY is a more esoteric concept which is basically an opaque way of describing ‘what would have happened anyway’. In other words, if a particular area of forest was never targeted for deforestation, then being paid to maintain it is a false investment because the service was never in any real danger.

Ok. Imagine you’re a legislator and you have to ensure that both buyer and seller don’t do something dodgy and fall into one or all of the leakage, permanence or additionality pitfalls. Sounds like a terrible, and possibly impossible, job. How do you police it? How long is ‘permanent’? How do you prove ‘what would have happened anyway’?

So you can imagine this unholy trinity has crashed rather a lot of proposed REDD projects, and even killed off ones that had been underway for some time. Like communism, it’s a great idea, but REDD is nearly impossible to make work in the real world for many of the same reasons communism fails – human greed and short-sightedness.

Enter one biodiversity-carbon trader (Penny van Ooosterzee), one ecological economist (James Blignaut) and one conservation ecologist (me) to fix the problem. I am proud to introduce the very fresh, new paper called ‘iREDD hedges against avoided deforestation’s unholy trinity of leakage, permanence and additionality’ soon to appear as an accepted article on the Conservation Letters website. I am particularly proud of this paper because it provides some tangible, real-world and economic ways forward for solving another problem in the biodiversity-conservation sphere. It’s also my first real delve into ecological economics (thanks, James).

So, Penny really came up with the idea of exposing the sometimes ridiculous restraints imposed by the unholy trinity, suggesting that in many places, leakage at least can work in the opposite direction – that is, protection becomes contagious and instead of just shifting the deforestation activity elsewhere, more people want more forest protected after a successful REDD programme is implemented. Our point here is that imposing such pie-in-the-sky constraints to avoid leakage and ensure permanence and additionality is actually doing more harm than good because so many programmes fail even to get started.

The second half of the paper though is really the crux of this post, and the most elegant (he states humbly) part of the proposed system. ‘iREDD’ essentially stands for ‘insurance-based’ REDD. James and I came up with the idea while sharing a berth in a Yangtze River cruise ship during a rather novel World Health Organization workshop.

iREDD basically works like this. Prior to any money changing hands, the buyer and seller enlist the services of an insurance broker to set a premium based on an a priori assessment of any problems that might be associated with leakage, permanence and additionality. Here, a Likert scale is used to assess the proposal based on five criteria:

  1. governance structures – Are the institutions of good repute? Do they have a good business history?
  2. management plans – Are the plans to manage the REDD forest of sufficient detail to account for unforeseen events?
  3. project liquidity – Do the institutions involved have enough cash flow to make sure they can meet the objectives of the management plan?
  4. acceptance – Is the project acceptable to the communities in the region? Do other groups endorse it?
  5. political buy-­in – Does the project fall within the long-term plan of the relevant government agencies? Does it conflict with any?

Once the ranking has been made, then a certain component of the invested cash is used to purchase an insurance policy that scales to the identified (and agreed-upon) risk. If the seller (i.e., the recipients of the funds and managers of the forest) fail to keep the forest intact, or are hit by devastating forest fires or political unrest, then the buyer receives at least part of the premium as an insurance pay-out. If, however, the sellers are true to their word (contractual obligations), the premium and its interest are paid to them in addition to the monies originally invested.

In other words, everyone wins. If the sellers fail, then the buyer is compensated and can invest elsewhere. If the sellers do well, they get more money. Most importantly, it increases the probability that atmospheric carbon will be reduced (or at least, the rate of emissions slowed) and the forest’s associated biodiversity will remain.

iREDD – remember that name. If you desire a pre-print copy of paper before it comes out online, please use the form here (bottom of page) to request one.

CJA Bradshaw



16 responses

24 08 2015
What conservationists should recommend to philanthropists | ConservationBytes.com

[…] up an actual REDD project (including insurance, of course – hint, hint, read my paper on iREDD). However, even the most do-gooder wealthy types tend to glaze over when I mention offset schemes, […]


9 07 2015
Next big idea in forest conservation? Incentivizing keeping primary forests intact | Mongabay Enviromental News

[…] make up the unholy trinity of carbon-financed forest protection. See associated blog post Unholy trinity of leakage, permanence and additionality. The Amazon rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler. Mongabay.com: Are you personally involved in […]


24 03 2014
Eye on the taiga | ConservationBytes.com

[…] and how we might alleviate some of that pressure on forests there (e.g., via policy mechanisms like REDD and its variants). It’s easy to understand why we’ve done this – the tropics easily contain the […]


5 03 2014
Terrestrial biodiversity’s only chance is avoided deforestation | Gaia Gazette

[…] implemented tool. The problem is that niggly requirement of ‘additionality‘ that we previously identified as being one element of the unholy trinity of carbon farming […]


7 02 2014
Incentivise to keep primary forests intact | ConservationBytes.com

[…] Corey Bradshaw: The ‘additionality’ requirement. [Also] ensuring that no ‘leakage’ occurs, and that the forests are maintained in permanence – these three [leakage, permanence and additionality] make up the unholy trinity of carbon-financed forest protection. See associated blog post Unholy trinity of leakage, permanence and additionality. […]


24 01 2014
Terrestrial biodiversity’s only chance is avoided deforestation | ConservationBytes.com

[…] implemented tool. The problem is that niggly requirement of ‘additionality‘ that we previously identified as being one element of the unholy trinity of carbon farming […]


29 11 2013
King for a day – what conservation policies would you make? | ConservationBytes.com

[…] pricing if maintained in perpetuity (following an insurance-based approach). The requirement for additionality would be waived in this […]


8 11 2013
Quantity, but not quality – slow recovery of disturbed tropical forests | ConservationBytes.com

[…] important consideration in tropical forest conservation beyond biodiversity concerns (think REDD, etc.), and the paper confirmed about 85% above-ground (biomass) carbon recovery after about 80 […]


12 03 2013
Brave new green world: biodiversity’s response to Australia’s carbon economy | ConservationBytes.com

[…] legislation (a horrible set of minimum standards that we’ve previously called the ‘unholy trinity‘). If you want more detail on the CFI, visit the official website […]


4 08 2012
The invisible hand of ecosystem services « ConservationBytes.com

[…] mere plebeian attendees (i.e., not keynote speakers) were limited to 5-min talks (I gave one on our iREDD concept). Bob explained to me that it was to give everyone a chance to speak without having 20 concurrent […]


26 07 2012
Threats to biodiversity insurance from protected areas « ConservationBytes.com

[…] applies to everything from our houses, worldly possessions, cars, livestock, health, to forest carbon stores. We buy the policies to give us peace of mind that in the event of a disaster, we’ll be […]


3 05 2012
If a tree falls… preventing deforestation with insurance « ConservationBytes.com

[…] CB reader will know, I’ve reported a few times on our iREDD idea, and it got a little pick-up overseas. Here’s a great article covering the concept […]


18 04 2012
Take a leaf from insurance industry’s book « ConservationBytes.com

[…] a quick one rehashing today’s media release on the iREDD paper I blogged about a while back. The full, online version is available upon request. Stay tuned for media […]


30 03 2012

The paper is now available online


21 03 2012
Simon Hedges

Please send me a pre-print of the paper. Many thanks!


16 03 2012

Very interesting. I would like to see a pre-print of that paper. I made my own comments upon the unholy trinity (excellent name!) here: http://bottomupthinking.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/standing-on-principle/. In my day job I am involved in developing a real life REDD project and these issues are severely taxing. Unnecessarily so, in my view.


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