Event Coverage

COP23 Special: Walking the REDD+ line, talking transformational change

Deciphering what works and what doesn’t with deforestation commitments
Balancing on logs from felled trees in Central Kalimantan. Researchers discussed the successes and challenges of REDD+ initiatives on the sidelines of COP23 in November 2017. CIFOR Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

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Has REDD+ worked?

Many at COP23 asked this question, and those in Bonn who were participating in negotiations, hosting discussions and telling their personal climate stories were likely to give a range of answers. But what does the research tell us?

Overall, REDD+ has not yet significantly reduced global forest loss, but Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) studies report positive, albeit small, changes in forest cover, livelihoods and tenure in many local projects.

At the CIFOR side event “REDD+: Where does it stand and what is needed now?”, panelists addressed the emissions reductions mechanism from different angles, with a professor giving out letter grades, a national REDD+ coordinator talking of heightened awareness levels a scientist discussing power relations.

Speakers delved into issues such as implementing and financing REDD+, incorporating indigenous voices and ways forward.

Ethiopia’s National REDD+ Coordinator Yetebitu Moges took an expansive view, saying “[REDD+] is small when we see the history over the last 10 years, but this is just the beginning … In Ethiopia we have lost most of our forest resources over the last two to three thousand years and now we have a plan for restoration.”


He emphasized how REDD+ has and is raising awareness about forests in Ethiopia.

“REDD+ is big because it has a big vision. It has opened our eyes as a developing country…We are now giving the forest sector our highest recognition,” he said.

Norwegian University of Life Sciences Professor and CIFOR Senior Associate Arild Angelsen discussed REDD+’s ambition of radical change with the age-old causality dilemma, “It’s a chicken and egg problem, REDD+ can push for transformational change but REDD+ also needs transformational change to be successful.”

Policy network and discourse analyses have shown that business-as-usual interests, i.e. those profiting from continued forest conversion, still dominate. “But, strong national ownership and performance-based payments have the potential to become a game changer,” he said.

Angelsen went through key findings of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study (GCS) on REDD+, which since 2009 has assessed REDD+ implementation across 13 countries, analyzing essential elements such as national governance and strategies, forest cover, costs, safeguards and well-being at the community level.

The research results he elaborated, published in seven papers and answering seven key questions, included both REDD+ successes and letdowns, which span positive policy changes to the challenge of payments for ecosystem services to the varying inclusivity of the process itself.

Angelsen said that on social safeguards, such as participation, tenure and well-being, CIFOR research found small positive impacts of REDD+ interventions. But, important to note is the difference between types of interventions.

“Command and control measures, such as enforcement of forest regulations, are the most effective in reducing deforestation, but also score lowest on safeguards, suggesting a trade-off between goals,” he said.

One of the cited studies found that for local communities in disparate, forested areas, REDD+ created much uncertainty, especially regarding payments. With this ambiguity, Angelsen posited, “Is REDD+ lost in translation or improved by translation?”, as villagers described feeling like guinea pigs in lab experiments, and not like equal partners and agents of change.


How one interprets and responds to REDD+ depends on a host of factors, with CIFOR’s Anne Larson addressing power structures and discussing the results of a key multilevel governance study, or, as she put it, “the landscape of decision making.”

“Multilevel governance is a term often interpreted normatively as a good in and of itself and it’s often understood as multilevel coordination. We did not take this assumption. In our research we interpreted multilevel governance not as good or bad, but as the nature of institutions driving land use and land-use change, and we wanted to understand how decisions get made across levels and actors,” she said.

The research found that power could be enabling, with entrepreneurs having power to get things done or stakeholders developing shared values and shared learning. But they also found, unsurprisingly, that power could be coercive, with those with power getting their way and taking advantage of ambiguous laws or lack of enforcement.

Larson said, “REDD+ faces massive challenges to be transformative. New alliances can make a difference, and the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force [GCF Task Force] is an example of a good innovation. Yet business-as-usual economic-development interests and models still get in the way. Recognizing these embedded issues, building alternative platforms and addressing demands for representation and rights are fundamental for bridging the gaps and building the bottom-up support necessary for change.”

Panelist Odette Preciado Benítez from the Ministry of Environment and Territorial Development in Jalisco, Mexico, aimed some of her remarks at the GCF Task Force, of which the state of Jalisco is an active member.

“In the experience of Jalisco and the other GCF Task Force member states in Mexico, bottom-up discussions of REDD+ have consistently been feeding into the GCF Task Force and government policies at the top,” she said.


The need to monitor and measure the results of REDD+’s encounters with diverse landscapes, peoples and policies and its core emissions reduction goal is a point of consensus, and CIFOR is pursuing key research to understand how success can be measured.

One CIFOR study compared two methods for assessing whether REDD+ had made progress, by looking at the effectiveness of different approaches to measuring the success of subnational REDD+ initiatives.

The study applied a Before-After Control-Intervention (BACI) method to assess the performance of 23 REDD+ projects. This ‘double comparison’ is seen as the gold standard of performance assessment, but is expensive to implement. Hence, the project also assessed the simpler ‘Before-After’ assessment. Results were more evident when the BACI method was applied, and again better if assessments were done at the village level than at the district level.

Using this approach, on average, annual forest loss is 0.4 percentage points lower in REDD+ project villages than in control villages. “That is an encouraging result,” said Angelsen.

For panel speaker Juan Chang of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), REDD+ has altered what once were depressed national forest sectors. He said, “Having forests on the agenda of national development and having countries developing their forest monitoring systems … that’s already intermediate results.”

Moges offered his own twist on REDD+’s performance in Ethiopia, saying, “The knowledge and understanding that was created has been huge, although investment is small [REDD+] has done a lot for understanding.”

“Understanding is something – that is a result for me.”

Answering his initial question and one posed again by an audience member, “Has REDD+ worked?”, Angelsen said, “It has not delivered as we hoped, but that is because we were too optimistic. We cannot yet see a trend shift in national deforestation rates, but we can observe positive policy changes in some countries.”

Chang, having mentioned earlier GCF’s current funding capacity, said, “At the local level [change] is already happening, but transformational change will take a long time.”

Thus, as it seems, walking the REDD+ line requires time, patience and careful attention to detail.

This research is part of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.

This research was supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (CRP-FTA) with financial support from the CGIAR Fund Donors.
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Topic(s) :   REDD+