Larry Lohmann: “The Problem is Not ‘Bad Baselines’ But the Concept of Counterfactual Baselines Itself”


Originally published on



In June 2016, I wrote a post based on a paper published in the International Forestry Review titled, “The ‘virtual economy’ of REDD+ projects: does private certification of REDD+ projects ensure their environmental integrity?”.

The authors of the paper, Coline Seyller, Sébastien Desbureaux, Symphorien Ongolo, Alain Karsenty, Gabriela Simonet, Jean-François Faure, and Laura Brimont, looked at the baseline scenario in two REDD projects: Mai Ndombe in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena project in Madagascar.

In both cases, the authors found that the baselines were unreliable in determining what might happen in the absence of the REDD project. They wrote that, “the baseline scenarios in REDD+ projects amount to untestable guesses”.

I concluded my post about the paper with the following two paragraphs:

The authors of the paper are careful to talk about project developers “optimizing the parameters” or using a “convenient baseline scenario”.

Fraud would be a better way of describing what REDD project developers are doing when they set bogus baselines. The voluntary certification systems, such as VCS, are complicit in this fraud.

Larry Lohmann, writer and activist with The Corner House, left a comment in response:

Thanks, Chris, for the very useful piece and pointer to this important article.

I’m wondering, however, whether the charge of “fraud” at the end of your piece doesn’t actually let REDD proponents off the hook.

If baselines are indeed unverifiable, then there can be no distinction between “fraud” and “nonfraud”, and it doesn’t make sense to say that any particular baseline, or baselines in general, are fraudulent.

To say that REDD accounting is fraudulent implies that with some reform, and some honest work on the part of VCS and others, it might be made nonfraudulent. This is simply not the case with offsets. The situation is unfortunately far worse than that.

Similarly for related words like “bogus” and “nonadditional”. If baselines are unverifiable, there can be no effective criteria for distinguishing between “bogus” and “nonbogus” baselines. And to say that a project is “nonadditional” implies that with some effort, it might be made “additional”, but again this is not the case. If there can be no criteria for distinguishing between “additional” and “nonadditional” projects, we might as well just come out and say frankly that there is no such thing as additionality and we ought to jettison the whole concept. After more than a decade, I am still waiting for most academic critics of REDD to take what seems to me to be this obvious step.

You might dig in your heels and say that REDD project developers ALWAYS set bogus baselines because there isn’t any other kind of baseline, and that therefore ALL REDD projects are fraudulent. But to my mind that would be to drain the concept of fraudulence of its content. If everything is fraudulent, then nothing is fraudulent. To attribute the contradictions in REDD accounting to “fraudulence” (or “non-additionality”) is to underestimate wildly the absurdity of the enterprise.

I wrote to Larry, who I’ve known for many years through our work with the World Rainforest Movement, asking him to clarify this sentence: “If everything is fraudulent, then nothing is fraudulent.” It seemed to me that if baselines cannot be verified, then REDD is a fraud. That does not imply that VCS can work harder to verify baselines, because baselines cannot be verified. It just means that REDD is a fraud.

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