Author: Kelly M. McManus

Slash and burn in the Amazon (Image by: Threat to Democracy)
Slash and burn in the Amazon (Image by: Threat to Democracy)

Negotiations on Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation and Enhanced Carbon Stocks (REDD+) yesterday centered on the scope and objectives of a potential Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation and Enhanced Carbon Stocks (REDD+) mechanism, with a number of proposals on the tables by various countries and negotiating blocs (for an overview of these proposals, see the Little REDD+ Book).  While questions over specifics-including whether an agreement on REDD should include specific reduction targets-are still being debated, the linking of REDD+ to carbon markets is being discussed as a near certainty.

REDD+ is considered as one of the more actionable items on the COP agenda, and it is predicted that a binding agreement on forests may be one of few substantive outcomes of the Copenhagen summit. However, REDD+ is widely criticized by most stakeholders, from broad calls for the three “E”s-equity, efficiency, and equality, concerns that have carried over from Poznan, to admonition of REDD+ as “carbon colonialism” by indigenous peoples who have seen their lands and livelihoods usurped in the name of the CDM.    Despite these criticisms, an acknowledgement of the critical need to halt deforestation, which garners support not only on the basis of emissions reductions, but also as a strategy for protecting biodiversity and providing essential ecosystem services, drives the REDD+ process along.

But can REDD+ deliver on its essential task of reducing emissions? New research suggests that deforestation probably accounts for around 12% of global carbon emissions, both because deforestation rates have decreased in real terms and other sources of carbon emissions have increased in proportion to deforestation emissions (Van der Werf, et al., 2009).   The significant challenges of implementing REDD+ mean that actual emissions reductions from deforestation will be somewhat less than this. Substantial issues have been raised in determining appropriate baseline levels of deforestation, developing methods to prevent “leakage“-i.e. deforestation displaced from forests under REDD+ governance to those which are not , and ensuring that compensation is only given to projects that are truly additional, that is, forests that would be deforested without the injection of REDD+ monies.   None of these are simple questions, and what is appropriate in one nation or for one driver of forest conversion, may be disastrous in another.

Furthermore, long-term ecological modeling studies in the Amazon suggest that under conditions of drought and higher average temperatures, forest dieback may switch the forest from being a carbon sink to a carbon source (Cox et al., 2004).

The uncertainties on REDD+ extend beyond emissions reductions.  REDD+ represents the largest potential financial investment into mitigating deforestation that has ever been undertaken.  This investment will be delivered to developing nations for avoided deforestation (RED), forest degradation (REDD), maintenance of existing forest stocks (PINC), and/or enhancement of standing forest carbon stocks (REDD+), or some combination of these options, depending upon which proposal is ultimately adopted.  If REDD+ (or RED or REDD) prioritizes carbon storage above all other currently non-market forest services (e.g. biodiversity, hydrological and nutrient cycling), it will create trade-offs between these services that may prove to be ecologically-and economically, if the critical role of water and nutrient cycling are to agriculture and human systems-unsound.    

To counter these very real challenges, we have added ‘D’s and ‘+’s and ‘PINC’s and a plethora of caveats to what started as a relatively simple economic, though potentially dangerous, economic tool. We have created a REDD giant.

Given the high stakes and high uncertainty associated with REDD+, it is necessary that we critically evaluate the potential  that the current market-based proposed REDD+ mechanism may ultimately cost too much, do too little, and have adverse impacts on biological and social systems.

These are not easy questions, and the political momentum behind REDD+, after literally years of negotiations and consensus-building, makes it unlikely that delegates will want to reopen this Pandora’s box.  But if they were to just take a quick peek inside, they might be well advised to consider one aspect of deforestation that is becoming increasingly more clear-the increasing proportion of deforestation that is caused by export-driven commodity markets, namely cattle ranching, soya production, and oil palm plantations.  If the problem with deforestation were narrowed to simply commercial markets for these commodities (albeit admittedly leaving the smaller but important problem of poverty-based deforestation for another, perhaps aid-based, mechanism) deforestation could conceivably be addressed through a trade-based, demand-side solution, akin to the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (EU FLEGT) Program.  Perhaps the market that needs to be regulated is not the one that does not yet exist for forest carbon, but the very well established markets for global “deforestation” commodities.   The thought of changing course so late in the game may seem the type of thing to send a delegation into a frenzy, but fear not, we merely need to add on a consonant. Ladies and gentlemen, meet REDD+T.

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