’Win-win’ is too simplistic a description for REDD+ – and possibly wrong


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By Terry Sunderland

Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) coupled with co-benefits such as biodiversity conservation, sustainable development and enhancement of carbon stocks through afforestation (REDD+), accompanied by appropriate safeguards, offers ’unprecedented potential funding for forest conservation and associated biodiversity’. So says a study by Jacob Phelps and colleagues, published in a recent issue of Conservation Letters.

Much of the rest of the world agrees. Since the UN climate change conference in Bali in 2007, REDD, in all its forms, has been embraced with a fervour rarely witnessed in environmental or academic circles. However, Phelps’s study, along with a paper by Paul Hirsch and colleagues in Conservation Biology, suggest such optimism needs tempering. Both provide a reality check: Can REDD+ live up to expectations as a tool to achieve long-term biodiversity conservation?

Far from providing the ever-elusive ’win-win’ for biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and sustainable forest management, REDD+ implementation could be fraught with risks, particularly regarding long-term investment. In addition, informed accounting of who gains and who loses (i.e. recognising and negotiating the trade-offs) will ultimately determine the success of REDD+ schemes.

Phelps and his colleagues highlight the long-recognised constraints on effective conservation, especially long-term funding, in the context of the opportunities REDD+ represents. Many conservation agencies are now linking on-the-ground implementation with global carbon mitigation efforts in the hope that they can thus secure sustained investment in biodiversity conservation efforts: the Holy Grail of environmental protection. But is such faith warranted?

They further suggest that current funding levels committed to REDD+ fall considerably short of what is required to even halve current rates of deforestation. They recognise the reluctance of the private sector to commit funds to REDD+ as carbon investments are ’volatile and risky’, especially as an over-supply of REDD+ forestry-related credits could reduce carbon prices.

In addition, there are inherent risks in relying on the voluntary public finance sector to support REDD+. As Phelps et al. point out, the closest corollary to the current voluntary investment in climate change mitigation is development assistance. Such aid is notoriously volatile and prone to either political circumstances of donor countries or often cyclical changes in funding priorities. Thus globally significant levels of funding for effective REDD+ implementation simply might not materialise.

Hirsch and his colleagues, who have worked primarily at investigating trade-offs in the context of integrating conservation with development, apply these same methods and approaches to the REDD+ debate. They recognise that any scheme aimed at reducing deforestation may impact negatively on either or both the environment and key stakeholders.

Despite ongoing development of a clear set of biodiversity and social safeguards to limit potential losses caused by REDD+, Hirsch et al. recognise that the rhetoric of ’win-win’ is too simplistic and potentially unrealistic. Ultimately this may result in disenchantment when losses are realised.

In common with many other studies on REDD+, they suggest that conserving forests in one location will almost certainly result in conversion elsewhere (leakage). In addition, the definition of ’forest’ remains contentious in the REDD+ arena. As one example, biodiversity conservation goals may be compromised if monocultures of fast-growing plantations are preferred where their carbon values are equal or greater than more diverse, yet slower growing, natural forests.

Interestingly, the two papers diverge on one important point. While ’permanence’ has often been featured as a key component of REDD+, Phelps et al. suggest that indefinite funding from REDD+ schemes seems impracticable. At best, they propose such funding would represent a ’bridge strategy’ to buy time for the development of low carbon technologies that would result in reduced emissions. Hirsch et al. suggest otherwise, that the ’polluter pays principle’ could discourage the transition towards low-carbon industries and inhibit movement towards a global green economy. If this scenario plays out, then there may be perverse incentives inherent in REDD+ that could have considerable implications for global conservation in the future.

Despite these concerns, both studies point out that even a flawed REDD+ mechanism is better than no finance for biodiversity conservation at all. The development of the REDD+ agenda thus far has taken courage and commitment by the global community. However, as both papers indicate, to achieve equitable, efficient and effective REDD+ implementation will require a much better understanding of the long-term investment risks and inherent trade-offs involved.

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Further reading

Hirsch, P.D., Adams, W.M., Brosius, J.P., Zia, A., Bariola, M. and Dammert, J.L. 2010 Acknowledging conservation trade-offs and embracing complexity. Conservation Biology 25: 259-264.Phelps, J., Webb, E.L., and Koh, L.P. 2010 Risky business: an uncertain future for biodiversity conservation through REDD+. Conservation Letters. Article first published online 22 Dec 2010.