REDD+ turns 10, growing into its own

A waterfall in Indonesia, whose commitment to bring a 26 percent decrease in emissions from land use and deforestation by 2020 is strongly supported by REDD+ projects in the country. Ricky Martin, CIFOR

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When REDD+ was ushered onto the global stage 11 years ago, it generated a huge wave of excitement and new hope for saving the world’s tropical forests. By making live trees worth more than dead ones, REDD+ was expected to put countries on the fast track to developing carbon-neutral economies and transform their landscapes – both physical and political – in the process.

It was at the 2007 Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in Bali that REDD+ was born, surrounded by enthusiasm that, as an integral part of a new climate deal, it could prove a major medicine.

But reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and enhancing forest carbon stock in developing countries (REDD+) has evolved a lot since then – and not exactly as planned. Unfortunately, it has not fulfilled the huge expectations to become a quick and easy solution for climate challenges.

Since 2007, more than 50 countries have initiated REDD+ strategies, 39 subnational governments have made formal commitments to reducing deforestation and more than 350 REDD+ projects have been implemented across the tropics. Yet the little evidence available of impact on forests and forest carbon stocks shows only modest positive results so far, while well-being outcomes have been limited and mixed.

A new book Transforming REDD+: Lessons and new directions untangles the reasons why REDD+ might not be living up to people’s high hopes and lays out key pathways towards its future success. The book synthesizes the analysis done by the 10-year Global Comparative Study on REDD+ (GCS REDD+) led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) with involvement from several partners around the world.

The title has an intended double meaning.

“REDD+ was envisioned as a catalyst for transformational change through the use of direct incentives – payments to developing countries in exchange for keeping and/or improving carbon stocks in tropical forests,” explains the book’s lead editor, Arild Angelsen, professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and CIFOR senior associate. “But REDD+ itself has also been transformed.”

How? Well, for one, the key feature of results-based payment was not as quick and easy to implement as originally thought, and the envisioned main source of funding – carbon markets – did not materialize. Thus, the centerpiece of REDD – results-based payment – has hardly been tested, and not at scale.

Most REDD+ activities have been supported by a small group of donor countries and multilateral institutions through development funding. And developing countries and communities have already shouldered much of the cost to get REDD+ off the ground, though this is not recognized enough in global discussions.

GROWING PAINS

Another reason for the disconnect between the concept and practice of REDD+ lies in the vague terminology of many of its terms and concepts – a vagueness that allows different interpretations to suit different needs and interests, but which can also lead to confusion.

“Some of this confusion can be avoided by making a distinction between REDD+ as the outcome of reduced emissions and the framework to achieve them,” notes Christopher Martius, a co-editor of the book and coordinator of GCS-REDD+.

“If you look at REDD+ through the lens of a theory of change – a pragmatic road map to transformation – it is expected to achieve reduced emissions through conditional incentives,” Martius explains. “But on the ground, REDD+ has evolved to encompass broad, rather adaptive and non-conditional activities.”

This is because there are competing ideas about what REDD+ is, what its goals are and how those goals can be achieved. Convoluted objectives and unclear donor commitments have complicated the original idea of REDD+ as a way to mitigate climate change through results-based payments, leading to a mixed bag of projects and initiatives.

NATIONAL POLITICS

Another change in the REDD+ tide was the failure to establish a global emissions cap under the Kyoto Protocol, and the rise of a new framework for international efforts on climate mitigation and adaption in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Now, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are taking center stage, along with parallel strategies such as green growth, green economy and low-emission development.

Research shows that many developing countries’ NDCs have in fact recognized the important role of forests, put forward mitigation measures in the forestry sector and developed various green initiatives to achieve their mitigation goals.

“But these measures don’t directly aim to reduce emissions,” notes Pham Thu Thuy, a co-editor, and CIFOR scientist and Vietnam country director. “Essentially, for REDD+ to be effective, forest-based mitigation must be incorporated into NDCs and climate action plans and mainstreamed across sectors and levels of government.”

NEW DEVELOPMENTS

What about zero deforestation and other private sector commitments? Climate-smart agriculture? Forest landscape restoration? Jurisdictional approaches to low-emission rural development?

“All of these initiatives can support the broader objective of REDD+,” explains Angelsen. “But some challenges remain.”

The book devotes a full chapter to each of these approaches, examining evidence of impact and drawing lessons for a more complementary, streamlined path to transformational change.

Despite high expectations for private sector finance, it hasn’t materialized to the extent needed to show real impact. Zero deforestation pledges have shown some advances in key forest-risk commodities (palm oil, cocoa, coffee, beef and soy), but in general, companies have not shared enough information to assess progress toward their commitments.

The land-sparing effect of sustainable intensification – a key component of climate-smart agriculture – comes under scrutiny in one chapter. Its authors conclude that positive forest outcomes cannot be taken for granted, and agriculture policies must include forest-specific measures to ensure higher yields don’t lead to more land clearing.

Jurisdictional approaches to low-emission rural development bring together REDD+, sustainable supply chain initiatives, domestic policy and finance across an entire jurisdiction. A new analysis of 39 subnational initiatives shows that most are making good progress toward meeting their formal commitments to reducing deforestation.

And while forest and landscape restoration represents the ‘plus’ in REDD+ (enhancement of forest carbon stocks), few restoration projects track forest carbon impacts or even include establishing reference levels or carbon monitoring in their activities, and goals are often influenced by the funding source. A change to incentive structures could help promote more sustainable land stewardship.

The book’s editors conclude that, while REDD+ hasn’t manifested as planned, it has helped set foundations for better approaches to protecting and restoring tropical forests and has improved forest governance in many developing countries. At the global level, too, it has helped give a better overall understanding of what drives deforestation and degradation – and how to deal with these issues. And although its impact on tenure has been modest, REDD+ has provided a platform for indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups to voice their concerns and ideas.

“Creating a positive narrative on how forests contribute to economic development and climate goals can help REDD+ adapt to the changing landscape of a new global climate change architecture, changing global politics, and shifting expectations from donors, REDD+ countries, the private sector and local communities,” notes Angelsen, summarizing the editors’ conclusion of the book.