But despite a high demand for REDD, there are few such credits in the market, due to difficulties generating them and accounting for their benefits. Carbon Conservation, an Australian firm, knows these problems well because the company has spent five years riding an on-and-off project development process in Aceh province, Indonesia.
It's not politically easy being REDD
The project was designed to protect 750,000 hectares (1.85 million acres) of forests -- home to tens of thousands of families and various species including endangered Sumatran tigers -- by originating up to 3.4 million tons of carbon credits every year for 30 years.
Its future sounded so promising that the project not only won support from the local government, it also persuaded U.S. brokerage firm Merrill Lynch to sign a carbon credit purchasing deal worth millions of dollars at that time. After passing a third-party validation for social and environmental benefits, it moved forward to creating carbon credits in 2008.
And that's where things started to get tricky. The project development first slowed down due to technical hurdles -- a shared headache among many pioneers, according to Ralph Strebel, vice president of Carbon Conservation. Then it stalled amid a busy election season in 2011. And when the elections finally ended earlier this year, the project was held up for a review because its political backer no longer governs the province.
Strebel said he has no knowledge of whether the new government is interested in REDD or when the review will be completed.
On an even larger scale, experts cite unstable policy as endangering the success of REDD projects. One ironic case came when Papua New Guinea -- which introduced the idea of REDD to the world -- froze pilot project development on its own land after a leadership change in 2009. (The nation recently elected a new leader and may renew its interest in REDD.)
Besides political risks, the collapse of the global economy has also affected REDD project development. Chances for raising funds to develop more saved forests appear remote in tougher times. And if and when that financing does come, that may be the beginning of another bumpy, leaky journey.
It is not a secret that forests stock carbon dioxide, but the amount of the carbon stored remains a mystery. To find out the answer, REDD project developers have to hike into forests with devices on their shoulders and measure emissions from each tree among tens of thousands. This process takes months and requires a repeat every year, as the emissions vary with the health of trees.
Fighting the 'carbon cowboys'
This, together with other time-consuming preparations, poses a threat to the mission of saving forests. That's because whenever REDD projects fail to deliver financial benefits as promised, villagers may go back to their traditional revenue sources: logging or replacing forests with agricultural land.
Some steps have already been taken in recent years to use technologies to speed up the process, like using satellite to enhance carbon monitoring. Other innovations are being rolled out to strengthen forest developers, with the world's first political risk insurance given to a REDD project in Cambodia last year.
At the same time, REDD supporters have been working hard to keep villagers on their side. The U.N.-REDD Programme, for one, taught villagers the right questions to ask if someone drops in and touts a REDD project. The program hopes to lessen the damage done by "carbon cowboys" -- a group of carbon credit dealers who promise expanding and often fictitious benefits to villagers in order to get them to sign a deal.
Despite all this work, there are still many problems that remain to be solved. Among them is the fact that a reduction in logging in some countries leads to pressure on other countries to cut down their forests to meet increasing demand.