Can forests save the world from the climate crisis? Well, we have a decade of organised experiments to scour for some insights. Four decades after the British Physicist Freeman Dyson published the theoretical basis for reducing carbon emissions through forests, the international community through the United Nations has led an ambitious initiative to curb global carbon emissions by incentivising forest conservation in developing countries through REDD+.
The UNFCCC once called REDD+ decisions a “clear breakthrough for action on climate change”. Up to 10 billion USD of multilateral and bilateral finance has gone into this scheme over the last decade. Under the Paris Agreement, several countries have proposed to reduce emission through land and forest-related actions including REDD+. Meanwhile, John Vidal, renowned environmental journalist and former environment editor of The Guardian cheered ‘eureka!’ to an emerging cultural shift toward forest conservation driven by climate change mitigation imperatives.
Yet, the rate of global forest loss has reached a new peak. In 2016 alone, global tree cover declined by 30 million hectares (the size of Italy) – a rate 50% higher than the previous year.
Ascertaining whether global schemes like REDD+ are delivering on their promise of climate change mitigation and better conservation and livelihood outcomes requires careful examination of not just policy pronouncements, but also actual execution and impacts ‘on the ground’.
A chart of global tree cover loss between 2001- 2016 (Global Forest Watch, 2018)
Our recent researcher-practitioner workshop which took place at the University of Sheffield was aimed at understanding these on-the-ground realities shaping the future of REDD+ and forest-based climate mitigation. Below we highlight some of the key themes that emerged from the workshop.
Scale of projects belies global ambition
The ambitiously global rhetoric of the REDD+ scheme has not been matched on the ground where activities that really matter for reducing deforestation have continued at significantly small jurisdictional and project scales. Though regarded as pilots which are meant to demonstrate the possibility of REDD+ success in the strongest possible terms, these projects are, ironically, of such internal and external complexities that they often defy efforts to replicate or scale them up. Moreover, the peculiar socio-ecological and political conditions of possibility of REDD+ pilots limit the extent to which pilots can be replicated and extended.
As evidenced by cases from Tanzania, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, REDD+ piloting has been pursued through various forms of exclusion at the local level, so that scaling up these projects comes with intractable socio-political and institutional challenges. And since result-based payments like FCPF’s Carbon Fund and market-based offsetting such as Wildlife Works’ REDD+ offset trading are tied to sequestration precisely in these maturing pilots and not any up-scaled scheme, the possibility that REDD+ at current scale will significantly reduce global deforestation becomes even more remote.
Contradictions and failure of monetary incentives
Monetary incentives promised by REDD+ have largely failed to materialise. REDD+ grants of $10billion over the last decade, though first appears significant, is little compared to the required annual investment of £10-15 billion. While promises of incentive have been widely employed to mobilise local support for projects, these promises are also an important test of the putative assumption that monetary incentives will lead to more conservation. Paradoxically, promises of incentives were found to sometimes ‘crowd out’ existing intrinsic motivation for conservation, thereby attenuating commitment to conservation values locally.
Similarly, failure of incentives also means that REDD+ is failing to compete with other forest-based investments such as timber concessions, mining and commercial agriculture which are widely observed in and around REDD+ landscapes. This is true even in REDD+ countries like the Democratic Republic Congo (DRC) and Brazil which have received a significant amount of REDD+ funding. As such, whether in the DRC where the government recently reinstated a 6,500km2 logging concession or in Sierra Leone where industrial mining activities dot the REDD+ landscape or Nigeria in which a 260km-long superhighway threatens to cut through REDD+ forests, the failure REDD+ incentives to truly incentivise conservation raises important questions about the economic rationalities of REDD+.
Exclusion, rights abuses and injustice
There is widespread evidence of everyday injustices, violence and abuses of the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples in the implementation of REDD+ projects. These abuses, which are not unique to REDD+ but permeate the terrain of environmental conservation generally, often build on existing injustices perpetuated through colonial and postcolonial conservation regimes.
From the exclusion of local people from REDD+ processes and discourses to the instrumental employment of safeguard and tokenistic local participation; from the refusal to recognise community rights to land, forests, livelihood and carbon to the outright dispossession and violent displacement of communities, the burden of REDD+ schemes have continued to be forced upon local communities and indigenous peoples. A recent CIFOR report documents the extent of these abuses. While a rights-based approach to REDD+ has the potential to strengthen justice for communities, there is a need to understand how this would work on the ground.
Into the future of REDD+
Confronted with these challenges on the ground, REDD+ faces a difficult future. The global landscape of REDD+ is changing, even if the carbon forestry logic continues to persist. The weight of commitment to the scheme is shifting away from governments of industrialised countries to those of developing countries who have taken on new emissions reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement.
Linked to this is the declining REDD+ grant from industrialised countries, creating a funding gap which is gradually being filled by the private sector with the rise of REDD+ bonds, public-private partnerships, and industry initiatives such as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation of the aviation sector and the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) of commercial plantation industry. This increased private sector involvement in REDD+ comes with new challenges that need to be understood.
These changes are also reflective of the global milieu marked, for instance, by surging nationalism. Governments, international institutions and other stakeholders might also seek to renegotiate interest in forest-based climate change mitigation, in line with global agendas including the Paris Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the New York Declaration on Forests.
Importantly, the reality of climate change as evidenced by changing dynamics of temperature, wildfire, drought and precipitation is also transforming forests across the globe. This is a significant challenge to the ways we think about the role of forests in the capture and sequestration of carbon emissions.
Finally, this year’s international day of forests provides another opportunity to critically reflect on the role that forests can realistically play in securing the future of the world’s climate. Continued debates on the impacts and future of REDD+ are critical to that reflection.
Adeniyi Asiyanbi, University of Sheffield, Sheffield
Emmaunuel Nuesiri, Potsdam University, Germany