Monday, April 11, 2011

REDD: Can we see the forest for the trees?

Currently, CO2 emissions from deforestation are estimated to make up approximately 20% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Under the UNFCCC framework, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries Programme (REDD+) proposes to aid developing countries in building capacity to reduce emissions through the reduction of deforestation as well as forest degradation. It appears that REDD+ is one of the only significant initiatives that emerged from Copenhagen to reduce global CO2 emissions. This blog post raises some criticism regarding REDD+, but also serves to remind that the bigger challenges in reducing emissions lay closer to home than in distant forests.

At first glance, the REDD+ framework seems to hold great promise; upon closer inspection, however, the list of barriers to REDD’s success is long. Most criticisms of REDD+ are focused on the details of the Programme’s framework and challenges for its implementation. However, while getting lost in the details of what REDD+ weaknesses are, such as lack of long-term funding mechanisms or the limited capacity of developed countries to implement REDD+, developed countries fail to take serious measures to change our consumerist lifestyles and thereby reduce emissions. In a way, by promoting REDD+, we are trying to encourage a green economy to developing countries while promoting economic growth, indulging in consumerism, and emitting horrendous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions at home. We preach to developing countries what we do not even practice ourselves.

Under REDD+, developed countries will pay developing countries to leave their forests standing. The amount of money paid is based on the quantity of carbon successfully sequestered; yet, neither a long-term funding method, nor capacity for measuring and enforcement are in place. If REDD+ is meant to reduce emissions by a certain amount, and countries will be paid based on success, a monitoring framework and capacity of the developing countries are key to the program. Not only do many governments lack the capacity to implement REDD+ (pdf) and for monitoring deforestation, many of them are also considered to be highly corrupt.

Hence, to ensure that the REDD+ goals are met, nationwide monitoring, including reporting accuracy and verification, is crucial to keep track of changes in forest cover and potential leakage. In Indonesia, for instance, substantial rates of illegal logging pose a challenge to REDD+ (pdf).

Likely the largest challenge for the success of REDD+ is the absence of a long-term funding mechanism of the program. The REDD+ financing mechanism remains unresolved. The REDD+ Programme proposes an elaborate framework to set up the process, but there seems to be a lack of long-term funding to follow through and to secure forest resources from logging for timber as well as from competing land-uses. Although there seems to be funding to get a select few projects off the ground, REDD+ can only be called successful if the forest actually remains standing. Two options have been proposed; the first being the creation of a fund into which developed countries pay. This funding method might finance the initial start-up of the Programme, but would unlikely function as a long-term funding mechanism.

The second suggested funding option is financing REDD+ through a carbon market. Besides the obvious fact that a global carbon market currently does not exist, financing REDD+ through such a market would expose the forests to the volatility of the carbon prizes. The carbon sequestered in the forests would be competing with potentially higher revenue crops from other land-uses, such as palm oil. If the price of carbon were to crash, palm oil plantations might replace the luscious rainforests. Governments of developing countries need secured long-term funding that is not directly tied to the volatility of the carbon market. In addition, an underlying assumption of REDD+ is that forests are more or less static systems; however, forests are complex dynamic ecosystems. For instance, the effect of increasing global temperatures on forests ecosystems and resulting implications for REDD+ seem to be unaccounted for in the Programme. If the capacity of forests to sequester carbon changes due to the changing global climate, the intended emissions reductions may not be met.

A major flaw of the REDD+ Programme is that although we are trying to reduce the source of emissions, namely deforestation, we are not addressing the driving forces of deforestation. Hence, we need to consider issues such as poverty, demand for tropical timber and forest products in developed countries, as well as plantations (i.e. palm oil). If the drivers of deforestation are not addressed, then REDD+ may not actually reduce the quantity of emissions, but could result merely in a shift in location of deforestation and consequently result in deforestation elsewhere.

We preach what we don’t practice

Under REDD+, developing countries are required to cease their environmentally destructive forestry industry. In addition, REDD+ seeks to reduce other forest destructing land-uses, such as plantations. Although there is nothing wrong with promoting a green economy for developing countries in itself, the very fact that we are unable to even practice what we are preaching to other, less well-off countries, seems morally questionable.

How can we ask developing countries to limit their growth and adhere to standards we have not set for ourselves? How can we ask developing countries, which are struggling with poverty, to limit their economic development, to turn down big money from plantations or the forestry industry, while we keep living in our beautiful and perfectly heated homes, fly to distant holiday locations, and buy tropical timber products? Norway, one of the leading developed countries promoting and financially supporting REDD, has put forward $I billion dollars toward a moratorium on Indonesia’s forests. At the same time, Norway is allegedly planning to invest US$21.7 billion in its petroleum industry. Maybe it is time to start practicing what we preach.

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