Thinking beyond the canopy

Cancun analysis: Starting the REDD+ dance

BOGOR, Indonesia (February 7, 2011). After six years of negotiations, an agreement on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+, was finally reached in December in Cancun, Mexico.

The agreement was a welcome breakthrough. REDD+ had lost momentum after talks in Copenhagen failed to bring about a much-anticipated deal on forests in 2009.

“A REDD+ deal wasn’t guaranteed in Cancun either, and if we didn’t get it then, forests would have been off the table for a decade,” said Louis Verchot, CIFOR’s Principal Scientist in environmental services and sustainable use of forests.

“We finally have a decision. We know where to start the dance, we know which foot to start on and we know what this program is going to look like.”

While negotiators have been frustrated with the six-year process to get REDD+ started, it came at a convenient time – just ahead of the International Year of Forests.

“The fact that we have an agreement in December before the International Year of Forests will certainly push efforts in forestry this year,” Verchot said.

“It will be a year to convene all the players and stakeholders and begin to discuss REDD+ seriously. We now have a program with teeth and we have funding on the table.”

In the agreement, UN-member nations made a commitment to REDD+ on a global scale and built a framework within which the nuts and bolts of the scheme will be negotiated. That process will begin in Bonn this June and is expected to take two years.

This framework will change how REDD+, still in pilot stage, is operating, which is generally on a voluntary and bilateral basis.

In a Norway-Indonesia bilateral REDD+ initiative, for example, Norway has pledged $1 billion in exchange for a two-year moratorium on Indonesia’s forests. In the Americas, on a sub-national level, the state of California has set a partnership with the Brazilian state of Acre and the Mexican state of Chiapas to undertake REDD+ activities.

With a global agreement, all REDD+ projects will be held to the same international standards.

The REDD+ scheme has developed over the years of negotiations. It began simply as RED – a scheme in which developed states would pay developing states to protect their forest to mitigate climate change. But it quickly became apparent that only a few tropical countries would benefit from such a scheme.

The scheme gained more traction when it was remodelled as REDD+, which allowed for the sustainable management of forests and the conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. This allowed it to operate in more countries.

Along with this development, however, came criticism that big business could get their hands on REDD+ funds to manage plantations that are typically poor carbon sinks or have limited sequestration potential.

Other concerns are that REDD+ might not ensure indigenous land rights, that developing nations have high potential to misuse REDD+ funds and that forests are seen only as carbon sinks, rather than biodiverse ecosystems that provide people and the earth with services and products. 

Having heard these concerns, negotiators included a number of safeguards in the framework agreement, and REDD+ designers will have to incorporate them into the scheme.

“It’s not just about moving money from the north to south. What we have is an agreement that says we will reduce deforestation and we will create social benefits and environmental benefits – and conserving biodiversity is clearly named as something we want to accomplish,” Verchot said.

In the agreement, the parties request that developing nations, with enough financial and technical support, undertake REDD+ readiness initiatives to ensure the scheme can be implemented as soon as it has been fully designed.

They should begin with a national strategy or action plan for REDD+.

With foresight, some nations have already begun doing this. Brazil, for example, does not have a specific REDD+ plan, but its climate change plan and Amazon Fund includes initiatives parallel to REDD+ readiness.

The Amazon Fund is allocated to sustainable forest use, land tenure and territory planning, forest protection, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and reforestation.

Developing countries are also asked to measure reference levels for either forests emissions or forest coverage and to develop robust and transparent forest monitoring systems and information systems on safeguards.

With the $1 billion incentive from Norway, Indonesia has set up a REDD+ taskforce to ensure good governance and transparency. Indonesia is also starting forest demarcation – the vast majority of Indonesian forests are yet to be marked out.

What may be more challenging is addressing drivers of deforestation and issues of land tenure, forest governance and gender, as the agreement requests.

The most controversial aspect of REDD+ that will need to be decided on is financing. There are criticisms of all options ­­– a cap-and-trade system with a carbon market, government funding and philanthropy, for example.

Speaking at Forest Day 4 in Cancun, Daniel Nepstad, a forest ecologist from the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, said public finding was problematic.

"It comes out through a political process; it comes out unevenly. And the efficiency and volume of private investment will be necessary to achieve the full potential of REDD+." 

If cap-and-trade becomes widespread, governments and private investors of developed nations will offset excess carbon emissions by funding REDD+ projects and trade forest carbon credits on a market. This is already happening on the voluntary market.

There is concern of volatility in the carbon market, and swinging carbon prices could put a false value on forests.

There is also concern that some nations could emit as usual, or even pollute more, by offsetting emissions through REDD+.

Some nations, like Australia, have not capped how much can be offset overseas, so in theory, they could pay their way out of making any emissions cuts at all.

Ahead of Cancun talks, a contingent of Latin America countries –Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela – issued a statement in opposition to a carbon market mechanism to finance forest conservation and management. Ultimately, Bolivia was the sole opponent of REDD+.

Bolivian President Evo Morales addressed the parties saying the scheme reduced forests to carbon sinks and ignored the people and biodiversity that exist within them.

But the REDD+ framework that emerged in Cancun does not limit financing to cap-and-trade and a carbon market.

“REDD+ is not a get out of jail free card for developed countries before committing to emissions reductions,” Verchot said.

“It is not inherently set up as an offset mechanism. It may eventually evolve into this if the international community decides it should be part of a long-term plan for reductions in emissions.”

The international community has many crucial REDD+ decisions to make, starting in Bonn this year.

“As the International Year of Forests, this is a big year for CIFOR and others like us to clarify the agenda, to generate interest internationally and to generate support from the donor community.”

If talks are fruitful this year, the world will get a first glimpse of how REDD+ will work when parties reconvene in Durban in December.