This article examines the political and performative function of the deforestation ‘reference level’ within Guyana's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) agreement with Norway. It argues that the establishment of, and continual negotiations around, the reference level rate illustrate how the Guyana-Norway REDD+ agreement was always more about ensuring the programme's ‘success’ than materially reducing deforestation in Guyana. By setting the ‘reference level’ at 0.275% per year in 2010, far above Guyana's historical rate of 0.02%, Guyana's successful performance in terms of ‘avoiding deforestation’ against this inflated level was all but guaranteed – even as ‘business as usual’ forest use continued on the ground. The fact that the reference level was high moreover allowed Norway to claim that it had ‘contributed’ (through its REDD+ payments) to higher ‘avoided emissions’, even though there was never a clear relationship between its payments and Guyana's deforestation rate throughout the programme. The ‘performative’ nature of the programme was meanwhile confirmed in 2019, when Norway disbursed the entire remaining balance from the US$250 million originally pledged to Guyana, despite the fact that Guyana had infringed the adjusted reference level ‘floor’ of 0.056% in several years of the programme. The article concludes that if meaningful solutions for ‘avoiding deforestation’ are to be developed, especially in the context of a new centrality for offsetting within the global ‘net zero’ agenda, ‘success’ must mean more than achieving results on paper and resources must be committed that are commensurate with the scale of the stated policy challenge.