Science - April 7, 2016

Can REDD+ still be revived?

Roelof Kleis

Capturing CO2 in tropical forests with financing from wealthy western countries. The idea at the heart of the REDD+ initiative is that simple. But ten years after it was launched, the idea is still on the drawing board. And one wonders whether it will ever leave it.

Illustration Geert-Jan Bruins

One fifth of global emissions of CO2 are caused by deforestation, which makes it a problem worth addressing. So in 2005 the United Nations launched REDD, which stand for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. The aim of REDD is to stimulate developing countries to reduce their emissions, with financing from industrialized countries. The original goal was simply to control deforestation, but five years ago carbon sequestration by planting new forest was added as a goal – this is the plus sign in REDD+.

REDD+ was hailed as a magic bullet. Not only did it tackle climate change, but it would also benefit nature. And that without costing developing countries a cent. But that was too good to be true. REDD became REDD+, which complicated matters. And there is more to good forest management than carbon storage, said the critics. That storage must not be done at the expense of the biodiversity of the forest or of the socio-economic development of the local population, says personal professor of the Politics of Environmental Knowledge Esther Turnhout. Moreover, the discussions extended to many other kinds of land use which also play an important role in CO2 emissions. Turnhout: ‘Agriculture, for instance, is a major source of CO2 emissions. But there are also forms of agriculture which capture carbon. That land use should qualify for REDD+ compensation too.’


In short, REDD+ became more and more complicated as the discussion continued. ‘The idea is simple but the implementation is difficult,’ acknowledges Marjanneke Vijge. ‘Originally it was only going to be about carbon: REDD was a straightforward compensation system for emissions. But it has been more than that for a long time now. REDD+ is not just a single mechanism; there are very many forms of REDD+, and many ideas about where it is heading to.’ Vijge conducted a study of what she called the carbonization of forest management. ‘What I mean by that is the framing of forests in terms of climate change. Forest as a carbon sink. That doesn’t automatically have to be one-dimensional, but if you only look at this aspect, it leads to a simplification of the policy.’

Vijge researched whether REDD+ really does lead to this kind of simplification. She found that there was no unequivocal answer to this question. ‘At the global level there is a great focus on measuring carbon storage, and the debate is largely technical. But at the national level the focus is much more on what are called non-carbon goals: biodiversity, local livelihoods, sustainable development and the participation of the local population.’

Vijge’s finding is based partly on policy documents about REDD+ from eight countries. She has her doubts about these. ‘It’s all just rhetoric up to now. If you look at what countries have done to monitor those non-carbon impacts, you can see that it lags far behind the monitoring of carbon targets.’

‘The strong focus on financing through emissions rights is a mistake’

REDD+ depends on the quality of the monitoring. Turnhout: ‘Only if a developing country can convincingly prove that it has reduced emissions, does it qualify for financial compensation.’ Wageningen plays a prominent role in the development of the measuring system. But measuring it is not the issue, is the firm conviction of professor of Geo-information science and Remote Sensing Martin Herold. ‘The availability of instruments for measuring carbon storage and collecting data is not the limiting factor for REDD+. Our knowledge of forests and the changes taking place in them has grown tremendously in recent years. Of course there are still parts of the world where there is less of that knowledge, but the capacity of those countries to measure carbon has improved a lot. Technology is not the limiting factor.’

Emissions market

The real Achilles heel of REDD+ is its financing, which still hasn’t got off the ground. Should rich countries put money into a fund from which emissions cutbacks are paid for, or should a system of emissions trading be set up? In the latter case, developing countries sell the tons of CO2 they have ‘saved’ as emissions rights to western countries or companies, which are then allowed to emit more CO2.

‘There are doubts as to whether this kind of market will be set up,’ says Vijge. ‘REDD+ takes so many different forms that it makes financing complicated.’ Professor Turnhout is more categorical. ‘There is not going to be a market of that kind. Developing countries have no faith in it. They have no wish at all for an international carbon trade between north and south. What is more, there is a lot of resistance to the idea of financial compensation, or the commercialization of forest and nature. The strong focus on financing through emissions rights is a mistake. REDD+ is a good idea at heart, but it has become too complicated. We are now on a path that can only lead to failure. On the other hand: the climate summit in Paris did not kill off REDD+.’

Herold emphasizes this too. He is much more optimistic. ‘REDD+ came out of the Paris agreement strong. The importance of forest as a carbon sink has been made central to the mitigation of climate change. REDD+ plays a major role in that. REDD+ is linked to a development agenda and in that sense there is still life in it.’ Herold prefers to see the class as half-full rather than as half-empty. ‘The idea of REDD+ is still a success. REDD+ has changed people’s mindsets. And that is what it is all about in the end: behavioural change. The discussion around REDD+ is much too carbonized – the focus is too much on carbon. What matters in the end is the human activity you aim to influence. The carbon is only a way of measuring that at the end of that chain.’

A blessing

The fact that REDD+ has become so all-encompassing may, in Herold’ view, be a blessing in disguise. ‘There is no simple solution to deforestation. 77 percent of the deforestation in the tropics is related to agriculture. So not all the solutions are to be found in the forest. We need to work towards integral solutions involving both agriculture and forests. In Wageningen we’ve got all the relevant disciplines together. We are Number One worldwide. You can be critical or you can be constructive. It’s Wageningen’s role to be constructive.’