REDD+ offers powerful lessons for green growth

Ten years of experience from REDD+ can give low-emission development strategies a head start.
Low-emission development strategies are starting to grow – and would benefit from learning from REDD+. Mokhammad Edliadi/CIFOR

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Climate-smart economic development doesn’t have to start from scratch. With a decade of experience and a wealth of research to draw on, REDD+ offers very useful lessons—knowledge that should help green-growth strategies leapfrog many stumbling blocks.

Low-emission development strategies (LEDS) aim to grow economies without growing a country’s carbon footprint—and might even shrink it—while freeing people from poverty and setting up economies that are resilient to a more hostile climate.

LEDS projects—in energy, agriculture, forestry and finance—are already underway in several countries, and this past week, stakeholders have been gathering at COP21 in Paris also to review progress. Like so many good sustainability endeavors, however, making LEDS a reality is easier said than done.

For about a decade now, REDD+ schemes have been run in a variety of countries around the tropics.

Despite slow progress toward a global compliance trade in carbon, almost 40 countries are committed to REDD+, weaving it into their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The INDCs indicate countries’ willingness to contribute to a new international climate agreement—the kind being hammered out in Paris right now.

Globally, there are over 330 REDD+ initiatives, and researchers have explored their design and operation from many angles—social, economic and environmental—amassing an impressive body of literature. There are now over 350 papers in CIFOR‘s Global Comparative Study on REDD+ alone that dissect REDD+ from every angle.

REDD+ began mainly as a way to keep forest carbon stocks intact, perhaps with a few co-benefits for biodiversity and communities on the side. But REDD+ proponents soon realized that unless they took non-carbon issues seriously, their efforts would amount to little.

Climate-smart economies won’t come about unless key stakeholders talk to each other and work in good faith toward a common goal.

Christopher Martius

Social equity, gender issues, livelihoods, private and public finance, land rights and tenure security, food security, biodiversity conservation, governance and law enforcement—these are not side issues; dealing with them is core to the success of REDD+.

The knowledge now available includes national policy and practice, institutional learning at different levels, on-ground deployment, benefit sharing among stakeholders, safeguards, and measuring, reporting and verifying (MRV) emissions reductions.


Climate-smart economies won’t come about unless key stakeholders and sectors gather at the table, “talk” to each other, and work in good faith towards a common goal.

In the sustainability arena, the mantra has long been that planning and policymaking need to be “integrated” or “holistic.” Joined up, that is, and not trapped in the traditional silos of this or that department, ministry, sector, jurisdiction, interest group, or link in the supply chain. Researchers call this the “challenge of multilevel governance.”

Actually putting integrated decision-making into practice, however, is not straightforward. Indeed, this is one of the most salient lessons of REDD+.

And then there is the political economy of land management. Vested interests in carbon-heavy growth strategies seldom sit well with efforts to cut either poverty or carbon emissions.

In many tropical countries, powerful groups and individuals depend on the ongoing conversion of forests and will often tip land-use decisions in their favor. Where governance is weak, powerful people readily find ways to work around official policy, laws and regulations. This is one reason why deforestation continues to be a source of high emissions in many tropical countries.

It also means that multi-stakeholder processes and improved coordination, whether in REDD+ or in LEDS, won’t make much difference unless the dominant development models are challenged. If we ignore these inherent conflicts, we are not only guilty of naïveté, but we’ll also never move beyond toothless green rhetoric.

If we ignore these inherent conflicts, we are not only guilty of naïveté, but we’ll also never move beyond toothless green rhetoric.

Christopher Martius

Moreover, inclusive design of REDD+ is a must-have to secure legitimacy, but where forest communities themselves are unaware of REDD+, garnering local support is very hard.

Tenure reform—essential to making REDD+ deliver on its promise—rests on political will at the national level. Without it, subnational REDD+ work will be slow, piecemeal or simply stall. But it’s no mean feat for a national politician to stare down powerful vested interests.

Establishing the social and environmental safeguards essential to the credibility of REDD+ hasn’t been easy, either. Not uncommonly, countries lack the capacity, funds and political will to establish proper monitoring, reporting and verification.

Good REDD+ programs strive for effectiveness, equity and efficiency—the 3Es—but also acknowledge and try to manage any trade-offs between these.


Whether REDD+ will end up in the COP21 agreement will be seen over the next few days. A strong agreement at COP21 would expand both REDD+ and LEDS. It would provide extra impetus for stronger governance and funding, and it would re-invigorate the market of incentives to cut emissions, including by phasing out perverse subsidies.

Both LEDS and REDD+ share the global goal of reconciling development and environment. REDD+ is both a potential part of LEDS, at least in tropical forested countries, and a source of tested know-how. The lessons of REDD+ can be applied and adapted to other sectors key to LEDS, such as agriculture.

There is a risk that the relatively tangible and measurable REDD+ objectives could be dissolved into the broader LEDS context at the expense of actual performance. We need to take care how we mesh the two together.

Despite the difficulties, the past decade has laid the groundwork for REDD+ to deliver measurable results. In this there is another lesson: these things take time.

LEDS can learn from REDD+’s teething problems, however, avoiding or at least managing many of the obstacles faced in its infancy, with less of a struggle and in less time.

For more information on this topic, please contact Christopher Martius at
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Topic(s) :   REDD+ Climate talks