COP21 could revitalize REDD+ … or not

A strong agreement in Paris could inject new energy into the original idea for reducing carbon emissions from forestry and land use.
On the eve of the Paris Climate Change Conference, REDD+ could still go any way. Image:

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The original vision for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) was ambitious yet simple: create both a supply of and demand for forest carbon credits on a significant scale.

Now, almost a decade after national governments officially recognized the promise of REDD+, how is the concept faring?

“There is clearly some fragility in the performance of REDD+ to date,” said William Sunderlin, a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and lead author of a new study surveying the state of subnational REDD+ initiatives globally.

In the study, Sunderlin and his co-authors analyze 23 subnational REDD+ initiatives, or projects and programs, in six countries. Together, these sites comprise about half of the global area included in these REDD+ initiatives, and they, Sunderlin said, are “where the rubber meets the road, and where the proof of concept happens”.

The results are not wholly encouraging for that original concept of REDD+.

“Things have gone ahead quite unevenly,” Sunderlin said. “Of the 23 initiatives, only four have reached the point of selling forest carbon credits, six have ceased or suspended operations, and another three have relabeled themselves away from REDD+.

“Our study raises a lot of doubts about whether REDD+ can continue as originally envisioned without an international agreement from Paris.”


At the end of November, climate negotiators will convene in Paris for the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Although it is an annual event, not all COPs are created equal.

The COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 failed to produce a binding international agreement on climate mitigation, leaving coordinated attempts at emissions reductions – such as the REDD+ concept – twisting in the wind.

As a result, many of the REDD+ advancements happened at the subnational level. Dozens of initiatives went ahead on start-up funding, and many evolved to become broader jurisdictional approaches to low emissions development.

Our study raises doubts about whether REDD+ can continue as originally envisioned without an international agreement from Paris.

William Sunderlin

But a cornerstone of the underlying vision of REDD+ – large-scale financial flows – has so far failed to emerge. Their absence has been keenly felt by the REDD+ proponents surveyed in Sunderlin’s study, who perceived “economic viability” as one of the two most significant challenges.

Many others, including the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force (which focuses on jurisdictional REDD+), agree that those financial flows are critical.

And here is where COP21 is set to play an outsized role.

“What proponents of REDD+ initiatives have been waiting for is funding that is sufficient, stable, and long lasting to provide incentives to people at the local level to fulfill their promise to protect forests,” Sunderlin said.

“The best way for those funds to be stimulated is for there to be a global message that, collectively, countries around the world are getting serious about climate change mitigation.”

Such a statement could stimulate the policies and measures at the national level that are needed to complement subnational REDD+ initiatives, he says.

“It could also serve as a stimulus for creating funding, not just through a market for forest credits but also through national – and even subnational – funds of various kinds.”

A strongly supportive message from Paris, in other words, could bump REDD+ into the higher orbit originally envisioned for it, with large-scale financial flows stimulating and supporting forest conservation worldwide.


Even with an agreement from Paris, hurdles would undoubtedly remain.

Take tenure, the other primary challenge identified by proponents in Sunderlin’s study.

“One point we make in the paper is that tenure and control over forest lands and resources are paramount,” Sunderlin said. “It is the chief challenge that proponents are facing in trying to establish REDD+ on the ground.”

The best way for funds to be stimulated is for there to be a global message that countries are getting serious about climate change mitigation.

William Sunderlin

Solving problems with tenure and economic viability is clearly essential for REDD+ initiatives. These two are also linked.

“Tenure and finance for REDD+ are two sides of the same coin,” Sunderlin said. “The forces favoring forest conversion, which in most places remain in the ascendancy, can only have their way if tenure rules are in their favor.”

An international agreement could help to resolve the hesitancy of governments over REDD+, Sunderlin said, by creating incentives to allocate tenure security to groups that favor keeping forests standing.


But it’s also worth asking what the consequences will be if COP21 fails to produce a strong international agreement for dealing with climate change?

“A failure to reach agreement this year in Paris would not necessarily mean the death of forest-based climate change mitigation,” Sunderlin said.

In fact, as he notes, some of the most successful and novel attempts to reduce deforestation during the past decade have come from outside REDD+’s remit. These efforts include stronger law enforcement in Brazil’s forests, which led to a dramatic reduction in the country’s deforestation rate from 2004 to 2012.

But a failed COP could well be dire for the original vision of REDD+ as a large-scale contributor to forest-based mitigation.

“We’ve been detecting some signs of disintegration in REDD+ on the ground through our research,” Sunderlin said.

“All of the creative action on the ground to get REDD+ underway in the absence of an international agreement is showing its limitations. Now, there needs to be complementary support through international diplomacy.

“It would be really regrettable if that decline continued for failure of governments around the world to reach an agreement.”


A positive outcome from Paris would be “tremendously helpful” for revitalizing the original REDD+ vision. Yet even if large financial flows and supportive policies do emerge, much remains to be proven about REDD+’s potential contribution to global mitigation efforts.

“While we at CIFOR are enthusiastic about the idea of REDD+ as an innovative approach to stopping deforestation, we are not yet convinced that it will work. Why? Because it is still experimental,” Sunderlin said.

“It remains to be seen that this new system of incentives would actually achieve what it sets out to do, and that is not yet proven conclusively.”

Indeed, REDD+ hasn’t yet had a chance to prove anything beyond the experimental stage. And while COP13 in Bali in 2007 acknowledged the vision and set the REDD+ ball rolling, uncertainty and hesitancy have plagued the idea for much of the intervening time.

Some recent developments – such as agreement on a REDD+ framework – appear promising. But only a binding agreement in Paris can truly kick the REDD+ ball into play.

For more information on this topic, please contact William Sunderlin at
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