Uncertain future for international forest scheme
With deforestation responsible for around 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it seemed, on the surface, to be an easy, cheap way to get some quick wins on the climate change board.
REDD+ — Reduction in Emissions from Deforestation or forest Degradation (the '+' representing additional activities such as reforestation and sustainable management of forests) — was conceived amid great enthusiasm at the 2007 Bali climate change conference.
But things are rarely easy or cheap when it comes to mitigating climate change, as a new report from the Centre for International Forest Research (CIFOR) shows.
A summary of the REDD+ experience so far was released yesterday at the Rio+20 United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development. It suggests that while it has significant potential, REDD+ faces huge challenges that are not easily overcome.
There are now over 200 REDD+ projects running in around 50 countries. They include an Australian-government-backed project to reflood and replant devastated peatlands in Indonesia; a privately-funded effort to reforest and conserve areas of Amazon rainforest previously owned by timber companies; and the conversion of degraded grasslands in the Democratic Republic of Congo into sustainably managed forests for carbon sequestration and fuel.
However after such promising beginnings, many REDD+ projects around the world are floundering.
Professor Arild Angelsen, editor of Analysing REDD+ and senior associate at CIFOR , says REDD+ has progressed much slower than was first hoped.
"In 2007, when REDD+ was launched, some of us expected that it would take some years before we saw results but a lot of things have been slower. For example, to start the projects on the ground, to implement national policy reforms," says Angelsen, Professor of Economics at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
One major sticking point has been the question of who gets paid, and for what.
A key component of most REDD+ projects is the provision of alternative livelihoods for local people who would normally earn their keep cutting down forests for timber or agriculture. These alternatives might include tree planting, forest conservation activities or sustainable agriculture.
However the question of what exactly is being bought or paid for by REDD+ funding is contentious.
"You're paying for emissions reduction, and establishing such a system is not only hard in practice, it's also hard in theory," Angelsen says.
For example, do you pay everyone with a standing forest a flat rate per hectare of forest, or do you only pay those who keep deforestation below a certain amount, such as one per cent deforestation from a pre-established baseline?
There's also the risk that, by paying people not to deforest, the system might inadvertently encouraging people to falsely declare their intentions to cut down trees.
"You do that and of course, everybody would have an incentive to say, 'I'm going to deforest next year so please pay me'," says Angelsen.
In terms of the 'who' question, many projects have struggled to identify exactly who is entitled to payment, particularly in areas where land ownership or territorial boundaries are in dispute.
There is also the question of how the benefits of REDD+ should be shared amongst individual landowners, communities, local, regional and national governments, says Angelsen.
"If you're only paying those at the local levels, what about all the governments at the various levels, the project proponents, those implementing the projects?" he says.
REDD+ in Australia
Australian company Redd Forests is taking a REDD-like approach (strictly speaking, REDD+ applies developing world projects only) to conserving Australian native forests, and relies entirely on the voluntary carbon market, according to Redd Forests project manager Jarrah Vercoe.
"Basically we approach landowners with native forests who have legal plans and intentions to harvest their forest and we use a PCS carbon standard methodology to calculate, if they don't log, how many emissions they're avoiding," says Vercoe.
These credits are then sold on the voluntary carbon market. While the establishment of a mandatory carbon market would change the game, Vercoe says the evidence from Europe suggests the voluntary market would not only survive, but thrive, as it would still cater to small companies not affected by the cap-and-trade limits but still keen to offset their emissions voluntarily.
The international community's failure to reach agreement on emissions targets has also severely hampered the expansion of REDD+. Once targets are set, and cap-and-trade systems put in place, trade in carbon credits can begin in earnest. This would see a flood of money towards REDD+ projects as the industrialised world grabs at the low-hanging fruit of the developing world, rather than tackle the more expensive and more difficult challenge of reducing emissions in their own backyard.
In the meantime, REDD+ is being held together by the voluntary carbon market, private investors, the developing nations themselves and most significantly by international aid money, with Australia and Norway being among the top aid providers.
REDD+ has also been criticised for being nothing more than a well-meaning gesture in the face of economic juggernauts such as timber, palm oil and soybean.
Professor Stephen Howes, director of the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy, says these powerful drivers of deforestation are very difficult to tackle with REDD+ demonstration projects.
"With a demonstration project, you can hope to deal with the local participation issues but it's very difficult to deal with the broader problems of corruption or with the economics of oil palms," says Howes.
"You need to have an approach that's more focused on national government policy," says Howes. "You need to change national government policies and strengthen national institutions if you're going to hope to tackle these drivers of deforestation."
Professor Angelsen says REDD+ is unique in that it faces far greater scrutiny than other climate change mitigation endeavours, for example, methane capture at a landfill.
"The attention and different concerns being raised related to REDD+ are because it brings so many different interests, in terms of charismatic fauna you want to protect, biodiversity, indigenous rights, the whole forest sector with big money and closely tied to political leads," says Professor Angelsen. "Landfills aren't that. It's much less sexy and it's not linked to high-level politics."
It's not all bad news, however. In some countries, particularly Brazil, the tide of deforestation has turned, with rates of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon down more than 70 per cent since 2004.
Professor Angelsen says this can partly be attributed to other factors including Brazil's financial crisis, the establishment of protected areas and removal of agricultural subsidies, but he still believes REDD+ has a future.
"A very cynical way of looking at REDD+ is to say this is part of the fads and fashion in development aid and international cooperation, but I tend to think that that is wrong," Angelsen says.
"It's not just a fad because two simple facts: climate change is real and we're going to see more and more evidence of that, and second is that you cannot address climate change and get the needed emission reductions without including REDD."