Why paying people to not deforest is more complex than it sounds

The Track Record of REDD+

Fires in Tripa Peat Forest, Sumatra, Indonesia. (Rain Forest Action Network, 2012)

In the Paris Agreements, the signatory countries to the UNFCCC articulated that a quarter of their combined pledged mitigation targets will have come from changes to land use. While deforestation is currently the source of about 10% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, forests are supposed to become a source of negative carbon emissions through reforestation and afforestation1. This re-commitment gave momentum to the flagship UN program on battling deforestation called ‘REDD+’, short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. This blog post will explain the rationale behind REDD+, describe its current state and pinpoint what lessons can be learned from its track record.

In the current capitalist system, companies and smallholders in tropical Global South countries are incentivized to turn their forests into rubber, soy and palm-oil plantations. For many people living in high poverty in the Global South, to not deforest means losing the opportunity of an improved livelihood. The idea behind REDD+ is to give forest communities a reverse incentive by paying them a price for their kept forest or ‘avoided emissions of deforestation’. These payments then serve as a compensation for the opportunity costs suffered by not cultivating crops that would deliver higher earnings.

The funding for REDD+ was intended to come from a global carbon market, in which Global North countries could pay Global South countries for ‘avoided deforestation credits’ as a part of their Paris-pledged mitigation. The perceived simplicity of REDD+ gave it a lot of momentum during its launch in 2006 and again after the Paris Agreements. The project was seen as a cheap and apolitical win-win situation for everyone2. It would help to simultaneously avoid global carbon emissions, protect biodiversity, provide poor forest communities with a stable income and serve Global North countries to reach their mitigation targets.

However, the current state of REDD+ does not reflect its original blueprint, as a real global market for carbon-credits has never materialized3. Instead, REDD+ projects in Global South countries are paid for by international donors like the Global Environmental Facility, which are indirectly funded by countries like Norway and the United Kingdom. The funding is used to dis-incentivize deforestation in 350 small-scale REDD+ projects in countries like Brazil and Indonesia4.

Understandably, one’s ‘willingness to not deforest’ depends on the trust that one will actually gets paid for their avoided deforestation in the future. Moreover, these payments should be consistently higher than the fluctuating prices of tropical agricultural products. However, funding levels for REDD+ projects have been unstable because of political fluctuations in donor countries5. Some scholars6,7 warn that not receiving consistent compensation has made forest communities lose trust in international development, which is perhaps irreparable. This is painful because when payments are high enough and consistent, deforestation can slow down considerably.

Annual tropical forest cover loss 2011-2017. Source: Angelsen et al. 2018 (5)

The fact that REDD+ has not been able to slow down deforestation (see figure) is also caused by the selection of deforestation drivers that REDD+ in its current form aims to tackle5.  The focus of REDD+ is to simultaneously improve livelihoods and protect the environment in small poverty-ridden forest communities4. Targeting ‘the small scale’ makes political sense, as development work in remote forest communities does not coerce the national sovereignty of most nation states4. What infringes national sovereignty is seriously curtailing agricultural industries with sometimes close ties to national governments, as they drive deforestation, but also economic growth8. REDD+ is perhaps doing what it can by avoiding conflict with powerful industries in developing countries. However, with its small-scale focus, the largest drivers of deforestation are ignored and deforestation continues like business-as-usual.

Under REDD+, coalitions of governments, industrial elites and international investors can continue to profit from deforestation by meeting the global demand for tropical agricultural products8. At the same time, behind the REDD+ ‘green curtain’, these countries make it appear to the international community that they are doing what they can to battle deforestation by supporting small-scale anti-deforestation projects. This also goes for Global North countries. Norway, internationally the largest proponent of REDD+ since 2006, saw only last month its largest pension fund divest about one trillion US dollar from palm-oil exploiting companies. ABP, the largest pension fund in the Netherlands, stopped  investing in large palm-oil plantations on the ‘deforestation frontier’ in Indonesia after being exposed in an article last year. While REDD+ is supposed to make sure that Global North countries provide financial disincentives against tropical deforestation, the same countries are slow to divest from industries that promote it.

REDD+ is not all bad. The initial worry that REDD+ would reward the conversion of highly biodiverse forests into palm-oil plantations with a higher carbon content has not become reality3. In many countries, capacity-building through REDD+ has empowered communities to be able to closely monitor deforestation and forest degradation through more accessible data and satellite imagery4. Moreover, REDD+ has secured vulnerable forest communities of their land tenure in some places4. However, REDD+ also still faces many measurement issues and the question still lingers whether it is even ethical to summarize the value of a forest in terms of its carbon10

While REDD+ is still central to the world’s effort to combat deforestation, increasingly louder voices of disillusion are putting its future into question, at least in its current form6,7. There are some lessons to be learned. Policy concepts that are relatively simple and apolitical in theory, like paying people to not deforest, can have complex political realities. Tropical deforestation is a monstrous problem with many drivers and actors, so anti-deforestation policies should reflect that complexity. To begin to make a difference, REDD+ needs move away from correcting the behavior of small forest communities. Instead, it needs to gain political leverage9 to counter deforestation incentives coming from global north investments patterns and large-scale land conversion in the global south. International negotiations about an instrument that would really influence how sovereign countries use their lands and forests would be lengthy and difficult. When keeping in mind that land-use policies have large time-lags before having any effect11, the future of REDD+ and the world’s tropical forests starts to look quite bleak.

  1. Grassi, G., House, J., Dentener, F., Federici, S., den Elzen, M. & Penman, J. (2017). The key role of forests in meeting climate targets requires science for credible mitigation. Nature Climate Change, 7, 220-226. doi: 10.1038/NCLIMATE3227
  2. McDermott, C. (2014). REDDuced: From sustainability to legality to units of carbon—The search for common interests in international forest governance. Environmental Science & Policy, 35, 12-19. doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2012.08.012
  3. Turnhout, E., Gupta, A., Weatherley-Singh, J., Vijge, M.J., de Koning, J. Visseren-Hamakers, I.J., Herold, M. & Lederer, M. (2017). Envisioning REDD+ in a post-Paris era: between evolving expectations and current practice. WIREs Climate Change, 8(1), 1-13. doi: 10.1002/wcc.425
  4. Duchelle, A., Simonet, G., Sunderlin, W.D. & Wunder, S. (2018). What is REDD+ achieving on the ground? Current Opinion in Environment Sustainability, 32, 134-140. doi: 10.1016/j.cosust.2018.07.001
  5. Angelsen, A., Martius, C., De Sy, V., Duchelle, A.E., Larson, A.M. & Thuy, P.T. (Eds.) (2018). Transforming REDD+: Lessons and New Directions. Bonn: Center for International Forestry Research.
  6. Fletcher, R., Dressler, W., Büscher, B. & Anderson Z.A. (2016). Questioning REDD+ and the future of market-based conservation. Conservation Biology, 30(3), 673-675. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12680
  7. Lund, J.F., Sungusia, E., Mabele, M.B. & Scheba, A. (2017). Promising change, delivering continuity: REDD+ as conservation fad. World Development, 89, 124-139. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2016.08.005
  8. Di Gregorio M, Brockhaus M, Cronin T, and Muharrom. 2012. Politics and power in national REDD+ policy processes. In Angelsen A, Brockhaus M, Sunderlin WD, and Verchot LV, eds. Analysing REDD+: Challenges and Choices. Bogor, Indonesia: Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
  9. Angelsen, A., Brockhaus, M., Duchelle, A.E., Larson, A., Martius, C., Sunderlin, W.D., Verchot, L., Wong, G. & Wunder, S. (2017). Learning from REDD+: a response to Fletcher et al. Conservation Biology, 31(3), 718-720. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12933
  10. Especially indigenous groups rally against the idea that forests embedded in much ecological and spiritual meaning should be translated into ‘carbon credits’. You can read a indigenous manifesto here: http://no-redd.com/ and an academic deconstruction of the colonialism in REDD+ here: http://www.ephemerajournal.org/contribution/colonial-mechanism-enclose-lands-critical-review-two-redd-focused-special-issues. Likewise, the tendency of neo-liberal capitalism to ‘commensurate’ everything into measurable and trade-able units is often characterized as ‘commodity fetishism’ and ‘inherently reductionist’. If you want to read a good Marxist critique of REDD+ start here: 10.1080/09644016.2012.688357
  11. Brown, C., Alexander, P., Arneth, A., Holman, I. & Rounsevell, M. (2019). Achievement of Paris climate goals unlikely due to time lags in the land system. Nature Climate Change, 9, 203-208. doi: 10.1038/s41558-019-0400-5

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s