Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) has emerged as an important carbon governance mechanism. However, forest governance is weak in most REDD+ countries, which undermines efforts to establish REDD+. This study analyses the factors that enable national REDD+ processes in the context of weak governance using a two-step ‘qualitative comparative analysis' (QCA) of 12 REDD+ countries. Assuming that actor-related factors can be effective only if certain institutional preconditions are met, six factors were divided into two categories that were analysed separately: institutional setting (pressure from forest-resource shortage; forest legislation, policy, and governance; already initiated policy change) and the policy arena (national ownership; transformational coalitions; inclusiveness of the policy process). The factors were analysed to determine their role in efforts to establish comprehensive REDD+ policies that target transformational change. The results reveal path dependencies and institutional stickiness in all the study countries. Only countries already undertaking institutional change have been able to establish REDD+ policies in a relatively short period - but only in the presence of either high pressure from forest-resource shortages or key features of effective forest legislation, policy, and governance. Furthermore, where an enabling institutional setting is in place, the policy arena conditions of national ownership and transformational coalitions are crucial.