What is REDD+?


As you may have guessed after reading the witty quote in the image above, today’s post is all about trees and REDD+. In case you have never heard this term before, I’m not trying to confuse you, trees are of course GREEN not red, and REDD+ is not a typo or the newest funky colour creation by a designer with too much time on their hands.

REDD+ is a mechanism designed by the UNFCCC (remember last month’s post? The UN forum where people negotiate everything to do with climate science and what we can do about climate change) and stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation”, which is a bit of a mouthful. As I warned you in last week’s post, the UN community loves its complicated acronyms.

If you wanted to put it into simple terms, you could say that REDD+ means reducing CO2 emissions by not chopping down trees. But alas – the world is not simple and everything is complicated (there’s a bit of optimism for you…).

But let’s take a step back first. This is quite a complex topic and you probably don’t have the patience to read about everything in too much detail in a blog post, but I hope to clarify some of the issues mentioned in this post in future blog posts.

But, anyway. Trees.

Who doesn’t like trees? They’re green, they’re pretty, they provide oxygen, birds live in/on them and we all love to watch squirrels hop from branch to branch. But, of course, trees do much more than serve as a reminder to us romantic city-dwellers that we have a connection to nature. Trees are at the heart of sophisticated ecosystems and play an important role in keeping the world as we know it stable, safe and productive, especially in relation to climate change.

Trees play an important part in mitigating global warming. They are essential in taking up CO2,  the most notorious of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the stuff we like to emit like confetti at a birthday party.

Side note: For anyone who’s asked themselves what the other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are: they are methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbon (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and Sulphur Hexafluroide (SF6). And another interesting tidbit of trivia: Did you know that the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect, in other words stable and small concentrations of CO2, actually keep the Earth 33°C degrees warmer than it would be otherwise and make life on this planet – as we know it – possible. The problem is that the stable concentration of 270-280ppm of CO2has increased to 380 ppm since the Industrial Revolution and has since been steadily rising. It is estimated that there are 3,000 gigatonnes of CO2 in the air to which humans add about 26 gigatonnes per year. Great stuff, go us.

But back to trees and why they’re great. Without going into too much detail because most of us are familiar with the process of photosynthesis, green plants convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose and oxygen, a chemical reaction which requires light energy which is absorbed by chlorophyll, a substance in plants’ leaves. In other words, trees absorb carbon as they grow and provide a stable, so-called, ‘carbon sink’ as they mature. Carbon sinks are natural or artificial reservoirs where carbon compounds are stored for an indefinite period of time. Young trees especially take up higher amounts of carbon as they grow. Although trees do release carbon back into the atmosphere when they die, in a healthy forest carbon sequestration rates are stable and carbon also tends to get locked away in the soil.

The Issue

Deforestation and forest degradation are the second leading cause of global warming, responsible for about 15% of GHG emissions. Moreover, some forest-rich countries are losing forests at an alarming rate: Indonesia, for example, has lost 6 million hectares of forest between 2000-2012 – that’s an area half the size of England. And it gets worse: Indonesia’s primary forest loss is increasing by an average of 47,600 hectares per year.

As a result, tree planting, reforestation and afforestation have become popular methods to mitigate climate change and global warming. But forests are not just important for the climate. There is also a vast amount of people around the world who depend on forests for their livelihoods.

The Center for International Forestry Research reports that 1.6 billion people in total directly depend on forests to sustain their ways of live, and 90% of people living in extreme poverty depend on forests for their livelihoods. 22.2% of household incomes in developing countries depend on forests for fuelwood, building poles, building materials or NTFP (non-timber forest products), such as food security, cultural practices or medicinal needs). Moreover, more than 75% of the world’s accessible fresh water is provided by forest catchments. And then there’s all the other benefits that forests provide like erosion control, flood prevention, protecting watersheds etc…

At the same time, forests around the world are under serious pressure. As the global population grows, there is rising need to expand agricultural land to guarantee food security at local, national and international level. The reason why I say local, national and international is that both subsistence agriculture, i.e. local populations farming for their own needs, and commercial agriculture result in forest clearing for cropland or pasture. At the same time, many governments give concessions to logging and/or mining companies to deforest land or extract forest resources for commercial products. Other drivers of deforestation include urban expansion, infrastructure development, unsustainable harvesting regimes for timber or fuel wood, or natural and/or mad-made forest fires.

NB: A great contributor to forest fires is slash-and-burn agriculture which is the practice of deforesting a plot of land, then burning the remaining vegetation with the purpose of clearing it to convert into agricultural land and using the remaining layer of ash to fertilize crops. Often these forest fires get out of control, like we’ve recently seen in Indonesia. The reason for this is a) didn’t your mum teach you not to play with fire and b) forests, especially in tropical countries, often have peat soil which is highly flammable. Peat soil is a thick type of water-logged soil with high organic density. Read more about Indonesia’s forest fires here

In other words, forests are in BIG trouble which is bad for the climate and the people. It’s not hard to see that many forest-rich countries face pressure from all ends. Yes, they want to protect the climate, biodiversity and ensure healthy ecosystems, but they are also under pressure to supply food and space for growing populations and stimulate their economies to raise their standards of living.

The problem is, of course, that we live on a planet with a finite biosphere. There is a limit to what the human population can do and get away with it, which requires recognizing and respecting planetary boundaries. At the moment, we are doing the opposite, proven by climate change and large-scale biodiversity loss. Yet, we also need to respect the basic needs for humanity, including food security, income generation and access to clean water.

The Solution?

So, the good people at the UN put their heads together and tried to come up with a mechanism that would protect forests from deforestation and degradation and help the climate, but also ensure that countries have an incentive and don’t lose out in doing so.

And thus, REDD+ was born. Launched in 2007 at COP13 in Bali, the UN started designing this programme with the aim to halt forest loss by providing an incentive to developing countries to conserve forests. The essence of REDD+ is providing compensation to developing countries for activities undertaken to protect forests and implement good forest management.

The general idea is to use carbon as a quantifiable metric that payments can be tied to. Or to put it simply: I’ll pay you 10 dollars for every tonne of carbon that you don’t emit from this hectare of forest (*illustrative example). The ‘+’ in REDD+ recognizes that preventing deforestation and forest degradation is not just about reducing emissions, but also about forest conservation, sustainable forest management and enhancing forest carbon stocks (i.e. assisting natural regeneration by planting tree seedlings in degraded areas).

So, that’s all well and good. Problem solved, right? Well – like I said, nothing is ever easy and anything that sounds too good to be true, probably is. Actually, REDD+ has been difficult to kick off and is in fact still ‘in development’.

First of all, it’s been remarkably hard to get countries ‘REDD-ready’. REDD-readiness refers to whether countries would have done all the necessary homework and have an idea how a REDD+ project would actually look like. For one, this means identifying the root causes of deforestation, as well as identifying all the stakeholders that are affected by how forests are managed. Often, countries are able to identify direct drivers of deforestation, such as giving concessions to multinationals to implement palm oil plantations, but find it difficult to address the underlying drivers of deforestation: international markets, commodity prices etc.

Secondly, we are talking about trees and forests as these abstract things we can collectively decide about. But the fact is, people live in forests and use them a certain way. Offering them compensation for changing their ways is often not enough to really tackle the issue. Moreover, some developing countries suffer from the lack of good governance and are affected by corruption, which often means forest-dwelling communities aren’t consulted at all. Imagine you live in a community that has traditionally had access to the forest to cater to your needs, and suddenly the government says “Sorry, but this resource is now off limits to you – sucks to be you”. Or, perhaps the situation is reversed and the community really wants to protect its forest, but the government wants to continue giving concessions to logging companies. There are a myriad of ways in which implementing a REDD+ project could lead to tensions between local communities, district administrations and national governments.

Forest governance and land tenure have therefore been important sticking points in designing REDD+ policies. Who has the right to decide over how to use land and how can we ensure that everyone’s needs are balanced with forest conservation? The point is that any such programme requires large-scale consultation and sometimes institutional reform to make forest protection work- and that often takes time and political will. Furthermore, this also implies investment in capacity-building and training communities on how to ‘do’ forest protection: how to patrol areas to prevent illegal logging, how to measure and monitor changes to canopy covers, how to move away from slash-and-burn agriculture, etc.

In order to prevent countries from implementing badly designed policies in relation to REDD+, the UNFCCC introduced REDD+ safeguards at the 16th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP16) in Cancun, Mexico. These safeguards set as prerequisites that actions must be consistent with national forest programmes and international agreements; that national forest governance is transparent and effective and in line with national sovereignty; that knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities is respected; that all stakeholders have full participation, especially local communities; that actions are consistent with forest conservation and forest protection is incentivised to enhance social and environmental benefits; actions to address reversals; actions to address displacement of emissions.



The other side of REDD+readiness is very technical and has to do with how to quantify the reduction of carbon emissions which payments could be based on. As the general idea is to introduce performance-based payments tied to carbon sequestration, countries need to sort out the science: setting baselines, establishing reference levels, determining deforestation rates, implementing monitoring systems, addressing the problem of permanence and leakage, which are (the last) two points addressed by the Cancun safeguards. Without getting too much into the technicalities, leakage refers to the fact that conservation in one area must not shift deforestation to another area, and permanence refers to long-term emission reductions through forest protection as opposed to communities/governments changing their minds about forest protection after a few years of conservation.

Thirdly, there is of course the tiny problem of: With what money exactly are we going to pay communities to protect their forests? More than $8.7 billion in public and private sector funding has been committed to 47 countries in getting REDD+ underway from 2006-2014, which has funded a lot of REDD+ readiness activities in different countries, such as policy design, establishment of MRV (Measuring, Reporting and Verification) systems, and designing REDD initiatives, but this investment is perceived to be small in comparison to what’s needed to make REDD+ a working mechanism for forest conservation.

Proposed transfer mechanisms include carbon trading (as in, paying for carbon credits from REDD which could be ‘retired’ on the voluntary or compliance carbon market), or paying for sustainable forest management. So far, there is no formal mechanism for REDD+, meaning there is no regulatory framework for forest carbon credits, and there has been no formalised international recognition for the role of forests under the Kyoto Protocol (something that seems to have been corrected by the Paris Agreement of COP21, see below).

Although voluntary REDD+ pilot projects have started around the world and forest carbon credits have been traded on the voluntary market, there has been lacking demand for supporting REDD+ schemes due to a lacking binding international agreement that includes forest carbon. In other words, there has been no signal to the market that people should buy these credits, so people haven’t.

Nevertheless, things are looking up. In November 2015, just at the start of COP21, Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom announced a joint agreement to pledge US $5 billion to REDD+ under the UNFCCC to performance-based emission reductions. This has signalled an important shift in policy to advance REDD+ and to take forests into account within the broader climate change mitigation agenda, or as Steven Schwartzman, the Senior Director of Tropical Forest Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, put it:

“This is the most important signal that this COP can send for forests,” he said. “What forests needed here was a real signal that donor countries were going to come up with adequate funding to support countries that are really putting serious programs in place to reduce deforestation and show that it’s working.”

Looking forward

Luckily for all of us, the international binding agreement at COP21 has recognized the vital roles of forests for the climate, local livelihoods and biodiversity. The details of the Paris agreement have yet to be hashed out, so there is still no clarity around how a market mechanism for REDD+ would look like or what other options there are to successfully finance REDD+. It may be possible that a new market mechanism will be created for just forest carbon, or that public-private or bilateral partnerships will become more important to stimulate investments for forest emission reductions.

Ecosystem Marketplace’s Supply Change initiative recently reported that around 300 major commodity companies, including Walmart, L’Oréal, Danone, and McDonald’s amongst other, have made commitments to fight deforestation from within their long and complex supply chains.

Many critics of this scheme say that REDD+ is just another way of commoditising nature. Should the vital ecosystem service of carbon sequestration really be a tradeable product? And is it fair that developing nations, the least polluting countries, have to keep their forests standing so that developed nations can go about ‘business as usual’? These are some of the ideological questions tied to REDD+ that resonate with some of the criticisms around carbon markets – why is it that we have to put a dollar sign on everything to recognize its inherent value? Well, this is a subject I will leave for another day since this blog post is already quite wordy and should probably come to an end here.

Going back to the beginning of this post – my personal idea is to put WIFI chips into all the living trees on earth, so that we have great and free signal everywhere and recognise the value of trees.

For more information on REDD+, watch this video:





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