Global study sheds light on challenges to REDD+


14 April 2014 — An incentive program to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation — known by the acronym REDD+ — risks losing momentum over issues of land tenure and economic viability, a new study indicates. The challenges are surmountable, researchers say, adding that a binding international climate agreement could go a long way in bolstering the REDD+ program’s prospects for mitigating climate change.

The study is based on 23 local-level REDD+ initiatives around the world. Hundreds of these initiatives, designed to test the feasibility of REDD+, have got under way in recent years. But some initiative proponents are losing their enthusiasm for REDD+, according to the study, led by the Center for International ForestryResearch (CIFOR).

“The initiative proponents are a spirited, determined group of people who believe in what they’re doing to protect forests,” said William Sunderlin, principal scientist at CIFOR and lead author of The Challenge of Establishing REDD+ on the Ground: Insights from 23 SubnationalInitiatives in Six Countries. (

“But they’re encountering major challenges whose root causes lie outside their project boundaries, particularly tenure insecurity and what we call the ‘disadvantageous economics’ of REDD+,” Sunderlin said. “These subnational initiatives need more committed support from national and international processes to create circumstances that allow REDD+ to function as intended.”

REDD+ emerged in 2007 as a promising mechanism to slow anthropogenic climate change by providing financial incentives to keep forests standing, given that forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere and that deforestation and forest degradation contribute up to 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. REDD+ stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation and the + denotes broader ecosystem conservation.

What makes REDD+ different from previous — and generally unsuccessful — efforts to reduce deforestation is that it is based on performance-based incentives. As originally conceived, REDD+ would generate a revenue stream by placing a financial value on carbon, with forest managers receiving a share of that revenue only if they actually achieved emission reductions or enhancedcarbon stocks.

Insecurity over tenure — the right to own, access or use land — remains the biggest challenge for proponents, the study found. “REDD+ is being established in places where tenure rules are often unclear and contested,” Sunderlin said. “But the REDD+ rewards system requires clarity over who holds the right to forests or carbon, who is responsible for reducing emissions, and who can claim the benefits.”

In an earlier survey of villages in five countries involved in REDD+, more than half of the respondents reported that at least some of their tenure isinsecure, and more than a fifth had been unable to exclude unwanted outsiders. Furthermore, as tenure problems are generally national in scope and origin, resolving them often lies outside proponents’ control.

Sunderlin notes, however, that path-breaking tenure reforms are beginning to take shape: In Indonesia, for example, the government has launched the One Map Initiative to improve tenure and land-use planning, and last year a Constitutional Court ruling aimed to grant indigenous people land ownership rights.

Yet for anyone to benefit, REDD+ must generate income in the first place, and the REDD+ revenue stream originally envisioned through trading carbon credits on carbon markets has fallen short of targets. Undermining efforts to generate revenue are the lack of a binding international climate agreement to induce regulatory changes, weak carbon markets and the ongoing dominance of powerful business interests, according to the study.

“If you think of REDD+ as a bidding process in an auction, where those who make the highest bid can control forest land use, the bid offered by big agricultural companies often outcompetes what can be offered by REDD+,” Sunderlin said. “This could change with the establishment of new conditions — some combination of development assistance, international or national funds, or a market-based mechanism — that can generate a stream of income from REDD+ and cover the opportunity costs of forest conversion.”

The existing funding gap is estimated at US$15 billion to US$48 billion by2020, with the supply of carbon credits outstripping demand by 13 to 39 times, according to the International Forest Finance Project.

Nevertheless, in combination with research turning a spotlight on challenges and possible solutions, the positive developments under way and increasing impetus to act can lead to breakthroughs: “There is growing awareness among some governments that tenure problems and the economics of REDD+ are fundamental and need to be resolved soon,” Sunderlin said.

The research was carried out as part of the Global Comparative Study on REDD+ and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported in part by NORAD, AusAID, DFID and the European Commission. 

REDD+ will be a key theme of discussion at the upcoming Forests Asia Summit, 5-6 May in Jakarta, Indonesia. At the Summit, panelists will explore how REDD+ initiatives can offer lessons for low-emissions development strategies and contribute to sustainable development. Read more at


The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) advances human wellbeing, environmental conservation and equity by conducting research to inform policies and practices that affect forests indeveloping counties. CIFOR helps ensure that decision-making that affects forests is based on solid science and principles of good governance, and reflects the perspectives of less-developed countries and forest-dependent people. CIFOR is one of 15 members of the CGIAR Consortium.
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