As COP26 looms and tropical deforestation soars, REDD+ debate roars on
- The United Nations REDD+ program (reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) has been operating for more than 13 years as a multipurpose initiative, intended to curb deforestation in tropical nations, sequester forest carbon, combat climate change, protect biodiversity, and aid poor rural communities.
- The REDD+ mechanism is largely paid for by wealthy industrialized countries contributing funds to less developed tropical nations, including those in the Amazon, Congo Basin and Indonesia.
- Some 600 REDD+ projects have been initiated to date (with some 400 still active), mostly implemented by socioenvironmental NGOs or for-profit project developers, and financed by more than $10 billion in donor funds in more than 65 countries. But evidence of avoided deforestation and reduced carbon emissions is controversial.
- With the COP26 Glasgow climate summit looming in November, Mongabay invited experts to weigh in on the global initiative’s successes and failings, with some supporting expansion of REDD+ via revised program rules and funding, while others support major reforms, or even the initiative’s replacement.
In December 2007, delegates from the world’s nations descended on the Bali International Conference Center, a modern complex with touches of traditional Balinese architecture just meters from the pristine beaches and tropical coral reefs of Nusa Dua.
Representatives from 180 countries came to the Indonesian island for COP13, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an event fundamental to establishing the critical role forest protection could play in preventing catastrophic climate change.
During the two-week event, heated debates raged over the shape of global forests policy. Today, many point to the Bali summit as a turning point when REDD — reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation — shifted from being a marginal proposal to a center-stage policy solution.
The REDD mechanism, as promoted then by proponents, would be paid for predominantly by wealthy industrialized countries contributing funds to less developed tropical regions (including the Amazon, Congo Basin and Indonesia) to curb deforestation, keep forest carbon sequestered, conserve biodiversity and sustain vital ecosystems, all while helping fight rural poverty.
“Bali was the real birth of REDD,” says Arild Angelsen, a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and a summit attendee.
“Everybody and his dog started a REDD project after that,” recalls Frances Seymour, an international authority on tropical forests who attended the 2007 meeting as director-general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Now, more than 13 years on, the initiative’s successes and failings are in sharp focus as the world struggles against a global zoonotic disease, witnesses unabated tropical forest loss and rising carbon emissions, while racing toward the make-or-break COP26 summit scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland.
REDD: A continued source of debate
More than a decade after Bali, REDD has firmly established itself as the primary mechanism for reducing tropical deforestation around the world. But despite its longevity, its approach remains as controversial and questioned as ever — with some supporting major reform, or even its replacement.
While REDD has taken on many forms over the years — ranging from voluntary and project-based approaches to national and jurisdictional-level schemes under the UNFCCC — the overarching framework continues to utilize incentives (often financial payments) to reward reductions in deforestation of tropical rainforests.
The many critics of REDD say the carbon credit system is fatally flawed and, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars poured in, has failed to significantly protect rainforests, while conversely legitimizing further deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
Others point to REDD successes, arguing that the initiative has been key in keeping the plight of tropical rainforests high on the international climate negotiation agenda. Some proponents also argue that REDD has yet to receive a proper test, due to lack of political buy-in and limited funding.
Despite this ongoing debate, there is widespread consensus that time is running out to implement an effective deforestation solution before global temperatures surge and the planet’s vital carbon-storing tropical forests are fatally damaged.
Since 1906, global average surface temperatures have increased by 0.9° Celsius (1.6° Fahrenheit). In a study published in Climate Dynamics in January, researchers found the threshold for “dangerous” warming of a further 1.5°C (2.7°F) will be crossed between 2027 and 2042. Experts say rising temperatures are ushering in the world’s sixth mass extinction, creating more extreme weather conditions that will make large parts of the tropical world unlivable, worsening inequality, and creating climate refugees.
Meanwhile, deforestation rages on. The tropics lost 11.9 million hectares (29.4 million acres) of tree cover in 2019, with a football field’s worth of trees vanishing every 6 seconds, according to a 2020 World Resources Institute report. According to an analysis published in March by Rainforest Foundation Norway, logging and land conversion for agriculture have destroyed 34% of the world’s tropical rainforests, and degraded another 30%, making them more vulnerable to fire and future destruction.
“We need to act before it’s too late. If world leaders can’t agree on a solution that works at COP26, we may not be able to stop runaway climate change,” says Bernice Maxton-Lee, former director of the Jane Goodall Institute and a lecturer on climate change and deforestation at the Vienna University of Technology.
A controversial history
REDD was initially proposed in 2005 by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, a group of countries led by Papua New Guinea, and its mission was further bolstered by the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, a landmark economic report that targeted deforestation as the “single largest opportunity for cost-effective and immediate reductions of carbon emissions.”
REDD became REDD+ in 2008, when the UNFCCC expanded the activities qualifying for deforestation reduction incentives to include conservation of existing forest carbon stocks and sustainable forest management. In 2015, REDD+ was enshrined into Article 5 of the Paris Agreement and the outline for a global carbon market was entered under Article 6.
Today, REDD+ project certification, corporate voluntary pledges for sustainable forest management and deforestation-free agricultural production, coexist with broader conservation efforts by Western governments and institutions.
Some 600 individual REDD+ projects and programs have been initiated — with roughly 400 currently active — mostly implemented by socioenvironmental nonprofits, or for-profit project developers. These initiatives have been driven by more than $10 billion in donor funds in more than 65 countries, with most of the money coming from development agencies in Norway, Germany, the United Kingdom and United States, but also including the World Bank’s $900 million Carbon Fund. However, evidence documenting avoided deforestation due to REDD+ projects is not centralized, is limited and sometimes contested — including the supposed 20.3 million tons of avoided emissions from 2014-2016 in Indonesia, for which it was paid $103.8 million last year.
Critics: REDD+ dogged by four persistent problems
Chris Lang says he agrees that Bali 2007 was a “major event that introduced the carbon trading mechanism as the predominant way to stop tropical deforestation.” But he also says he doesn’t think that was necessarily a good thing, and is a leading REDD+ critic who since 2008 has run the independent website REDD-Monitor.
Lang sees four fundamental flaws with REDD’s bedrock concept of making payments to discourage deforestation and forest degradation: leakage, additionality, permanence, and measurement.
“Leakage” refers to how REDD+ forest conservation, even if it is successful in one spot, often simply shifts deforestation to another locale or country; “additionality” refers to the impossibility of predicting what would have happened in the absence of the REDD project; “permanence” refers to the difficulty of protecting trees under REDD schemes for the long term — not just years or even decades; and “measurement” refers to the difficulty in accurately counting the carbon amounts stored in forests.
“These are fundamental problems that have not gone away,” Lang says. “REDD hasn’t stopped deforestation. Even within REDD projects, it hasn’t always stopped deforestation — in some projects it has, in some it hasn’t.”
The Brazilian example: Voluntary REDD+
Lang’s critical points were partly illustrated in a study last year analyzing 12 REDD+ voluntary projects in the Brazilian Amazon. That research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that the projects’ claimed reductions in forest loss failed to accurately set baselines for deforestation rates by not properly accounting for conservation efforts made separately by the Brazilian government and other programs.
Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at Brazil’s National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA), says he agrees that inflated baselines are among several problems that allow for the “gaming” of REDD’s carbon credit system.
“It’s a prevalent problem because basically all the parties involved [in a REDD project] have a conflict of interest,” he says. “The landowners or Indigenous groups want to get the most carbon credit possible, then the consultants working on it want to get more carbon credit.”
This issue, Fearnside says, is magnified in Brazil because its REDD projects are based on a voluntary carbon market (prevalent there because the national government has failed to set up regulations allowing REDD to comply with the terms of the U.N. climate convention). Unlike REDD+ programs, grounded in federal law, voluntary projects are “decentralized” and only subject to rules set by Verra, a leading carbon-offset program.
Still, Fearnside says he hopes for positive change. He calls for an independent regulator to eliminate conflicts of interest and allow more accurate REDD+ carbon accounting and forest conservation. “You have to have some mechanism where there is an individual body to look at things on the ground — not to just rubber stamp,” he says. “That should be done before money is granted. It shouldn’t be in the hands of private consultants.
“The beneficial effect of voluntary REDD in providing funds for conservation efforts is real, but the benefits for climate are undermined when the projects result in allowing the project funders to emit more greenhouse gas than the projects actually offset,” Fearnside says.
David Swallow, a REDD projects industry consultant, defends the Brazil system, noting that voluntary schemes make up the majority of REDD projects in the country and that carbon reductions achieved by them are “very significant.” There have been more than 60 such projects in Brazil since REDD launched, according to the IDRECCO database.
Swallow says he rejects the idea of overstated REDD baselines. “That would concern me greatly if that was the case, but I don’t agree it is,” he says. “It’s one researcher and his team claiming this and they don’t take into account net tradable carbon credits — not just gross — and issues such as buffer zones [around project areas] and fire risks.”
Swallow concedes Brazilian methodologies can be improved. “We go through the figures very vigorously,” he says. “But there might be ways to improve the ex-ante baseline.”
For Naomi Swickard, chief program officer of Verra, the carbon offset certifier, voluntary REDD markets are “very important” in curbing climate change. “Regional and project level is where you will really tackle deforestation,” she says. “To be successful you need to be working with local communities … You [also] need national implementation and buy-in … There’s not an either-or in terms of scale, you need both.”
Erin Sills, a co-author of the PNAS study, says the Brazil example shows how “fragile REDD is politically,” depending on the vagaries of national politics. “There have been efforts to move from [voluntary] project-level to national REDD,” she says. “But REDD has been fundamentally undermined by Brazil’s current national government” under President Jair Bolsonaro.
Sills backs up her point with figures released in November by INPE, the Brazilian space institute, showing at least 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of rainforest destroyed between August 2019 and July 2020 under Bolsonaro — the highest figure in 12 years. As such, Brazil will miss its self-set Paris accord target for reducing deforestation to 390,000 hectares (964,000 acres) annually.
But that doesn’t mean the carbon credit approach should be discarded, Sills says. Instead, sub-national efforts in individual Brazilian states could prove viable, though variable geographic and biophysical differences and deforestation drivers, such as soy, cattle and timber production, could prove challenging.
“Sub-national government is closer to the ground and the incentives are closer,” she says. “But if there’s too much focus on crediting the carbon properly, [REDD] won’t be sustainable in the long run. So we must ensure there are benefits for local people and local governments.”
A jurisdictional approach, more speed, less red tape
To avoid voluntary projects problems, leading REDD+ supporters urge a shift from project-based management to jurisdictional-level buy-in — with major international interventions.
“REDD+ on a jurisdictional scale, with certain, prompt, and large-scale rewards for performance is a great idea that’s hardly been tried,” says Seymour, currently a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute.
Seymour argues that low financing of REDD+ due to lax government support, along with the 2008 global recession, lie behind the initiative’s lackluster performance. “The expectation, perhaps naively, was that there would be an international agreement, and that it would create large market demand,” she says. “But the whole world collapsed into a recession. At the time, Norway said it would offer $1 billion to Brazil, [but] it just isn’t that much when compared to the size of the economy.”
REDD’s slow payment system and unwieldy bureaucracy also tempered national enthusiasm, Seymour says. “The REDD money that was available was development assistance money; it was encumbered by many hurdles … It wasn’t just money paid directly. These REDD agreements took years to negotiate and the business transaction element of it got lost.”
Seymour suggests a rethink of REDD+ implementation, replacing “outdated mental maps” and critiques. “Since the beginning,” she says, “there have been quite robust tools developed against problems like additionality, permanence, leakage.” Transparency has improved massively over time, for example, with initiatives like Global Forest Watch, an open-source satellite imagery tool. Changes in land use policies also mean that countries and communities can reach their agriculture goals without increasing deforestation.
A key element of the carbon credit rethink, Seymour adds, would be upping carbon pricing. For most of the last decade, the price of REDD credits offered by donors was $5 per ton. Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, former environment minister of Costa Rica and now head of the Global Environment Facility, calls this “insulting.” Higher prices, in the $15 to $20 range, would “likely generate more results,” Seymour says.
Per Fredrik Ilsaas Pharo of Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative, one of the superpowers when it comes to REDD funding, says he agrees. “It’s been massively underfunded,” he says. “if the world wants to take [REDD] seriously, it needs to invest more money.” For now, agribusiness and other deforesters are hugely outspending those trying to curb deforestation.
The Congo example: Community empowerment needed
Some socioenvironmental critics argue that local communities haven’t been adequately included in REDD+ collaborations. “Rather than pretending emissions can be solved through bookkeeping and accounting, [nations] must have a look at the reality. Any [deforestation] solution must tackle the underlying causes,” says Jutta Kill of the World Rainforest Movement, monitoring the carbon market since 2000. Many of REDD’s failures stem from a lack of engagement with communities, she contends.
Governments should recognize Indigenous people’s rights to land — especially because they’re overwhelmingly the best land stewards, she adds. “We must invest in community forests … Measures to stop deforestation won’t cost as much money if you take away all of these consultants.”
A report published in April by Rainforest Foundation Norway found that Indigenous peoples and local communities in tropical countries have received the equivalent of less than 1%of official development assistance (ODA) for climate change mitigation and adaptation over the past decade.
Joe Eisen, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK), points to the case of Mai Ndombe in the Democratic Republic of Congo as key evidence of REDD+ community failings. “It’s one of the highest profile examples and it isn’t working,” he says. “Deforestation has gone up, there’s been little clarification of rights and credits are still being sold.”
For two years, teams from RFUK and ADEM (Actions for the Promotion and Protection of Peoples and Species), a local NGO, surveyed more than 400 individuals in 26 villages inside two of the province’s highest-profile projects: the Integrated REDD+ Plateau Project and the privately run Wildlife Works Carbon REDD+ concession, and published a report in February.
Blaise Mudodosi, a co-author, says there were “serious failings” uncovered in both projects: they did not obtain the free, prior and informed consent of local communities; there was a low level of inclusion of communities; promised benefits have still not been delivered; and there has been little impact on reducing deforestation and degradation.
“For us, it was very important to criticize this program,” he says. “This could have repercussions for other projects in the country. The programs haven’t respected local customs. We need better communication and discussion with communities.”
“Projects not designed and not implemented by communities won’t work,” Kill says.
REDD failing to address ‘the elephant in the room’
Maxton-Lee, who wrote Forest Conservation and Sustainability in Indonesia, a book published this year highlighting the difficulties of stopping Indonesian deforestation, says the people who argue that REDD’s success includes increased public awareness, NGO involvement and job creation, miss the point.
“To my mind all of that is a distraction,” she says. “Is there more or less forest than there was a decade ago? There’s so much less. The massive elephant in the room is fossil fuel combustion. REDD hasn’t stopped any of this.”
She says it’s time to move away from REDD as a climate change solution. “We need to be looking at different measures — not using the marketplace and putting a price on carbon for the continued existence of trees in the ground … The priority needs to be creating binding targets for cutting emissions.”
Among the fiercest critics of REDD is Larry Lohmann, a scholar and activist working for U.K.-based NGO The Corner House. He challenges the very essence of how REDD functions, saying that carbon markets distract from the urgent need to slash emissions. “REDD is aimed at perpetuating the fossil fuel economy,” he says. “It’s industrial capitalism … It’s based on making deals with capital. What [REDD] achieves is to delay action on climate change and it’s been surprisingly successful in doing that.”
Alain Karsenty, an economist and researcher at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), also questions the “economic framing” of the deforestation issue. “REDD+ should not be part of any carbon market at all,” he says. “We need to give up results-based payments.”
This “well-intentioned but short-sighted mechanism” generates “perverse incentives and favors strategic behaviors of rent-seeking governments,” Karsenty adds. “You need to question the environmental credibility of such schemes.”
But Angelsen of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences says he disagrees, arguing that “some form of results-based payments” is needed. “Can we really say REDD has led to a massive reduction in emissions? We cannot say that,” he says. “But as an economist, I believe in economic incentives, that they matter, and that it is fair to pay those countries that genuinely fight climate change.”
COP26 and the REDD+ road ahead
Criticisms and concerns aside, it seems almost certain, say experts, that major players in the Glasgow COP26 negotiations — including the U.N., World Bank and Norway — will continue backing REDD as a chief deforestation and carbon sequestration solution.
“I do worry there are too many institutions and countries that don’t have the specific vision of what REDD+ should be, and that’s an important discussion going forward with the COP,” says Anders Haug Larsen of Rainforest Foundation Norway. “But right now we see a larger appetite for nature-based climate solutions and support for tropical forest programs — it’s important to build on the experience we have.”
Mario Boccucci, secretary of the UN-REDD Programme, a partnership between the FAO, UNDP and UNEP that supports governments in their UNFCCC REDD+ processes, echoes those sentiments and plays down REDD’s mixed results to date.
“We have gone a long way,” he says. “The number of countries with safeguarding strategy and monitoring strategies has increased massively. Turning those national strategies into investment plans is a major step forward because you are preparing countries to hit the ground running on the operational level.” However, Boccucci refuses to say whether he’s confident that sufficient REDD funding will be secured in Glasgow.
A spokesperson for the World Bank’s FCPF (Forest Carbon Partnership Facility) defended its $1.3 billion multidonor fund*, in place for 14 years. REDD implemented “a new and innovative way to implement reforestation strategies,” the spokesperson said, adding that 12 nations have already signed emissions reduction payment agreements, committing to buy verified reductions of 120 million tons of CO2 emissions through reforestation programs. However, these reductions are not forecast to be achieved until 2025.
The FCPF also said it has made benefit-sharing efforts to “ensure all stakeholders, including Indigenous peoples and communities, are fairly recognized and rewarded for their role in reducing emissions.”
Ultimately, critics say REDD’s benefits are too few and too slow to manifest, when weighed against the urgency of the climate crisis. It took a decade to achieve the first REDD payment, notes RFUK’s Eisen, while the Norwegian rainforest initiative made no payments for reduced emissions from deforestation in 2020, and the World Bank’s FCPF, which was supposed to have completed its objectives by December 2020, still hasn’t made any payments.
As the world readies for Glasgow, REDD critics like Eisen say they worry that without major reforms, another decade ineffectively fighting deforestation could be wasted. “There is an urgent need for an independent cost-benefit analysis of the effectiveness of the FCPF and other REDD+ funds over the past decade,” Eisen says. “With most nature-based [climate change] solutions set to be in forests … there is a very real risk of repeating the same mistakes unless we heed the lessons from such top-down programs and empower forest communities to protect their home.”
Hébert, R., Lovejoy, S., & Tremblay, B. (2020). An observation-based scaling model for climate sensitivity estimates and global projections to 2100. Climate Dynamics, 56(3-4), 1105-1129. doi:10.1007/s00382-020-05521-x
West, T. A., Börner, J., Sills, E. O., & Kontoleon, A. (2020). Overstated carbon emission reductions from voluntary REDD+ projects in the Brazilian Amazon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(39), 24188-24194. doi:10.1073/pnas.2004334117
Banner image: A Papuan girl swims in Kali Biru in the Knasaimos landscape in Teminabuan, South Sorong, West Papua. With the make-or-break negotiations of COP26 just months away, some experts want to see major REDD+ reforms come out of the climate summit. Image © Jurnasyanto Sukarno/Greenpeace.
Correction: This story originally reported the FCPF multidonor fund as $1.1 billion; it has been corrected to $1.3 billion.
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