Time to get serious about evaluating REDD+ impacts

Impact assessments of efforts to reduce deforestation and forest degradation needed
Ecuadorian Amazon CIFOR/Tomas Munita

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In September, global experts, world leaders and top U.N. officials gathered in New York to double down on efforts to halt the ongoing climate crisis. Nature-based solutions, including forest conservation and reforestation, were high on the agenda, with activist duo Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot touting trees as “magical machines that suck carbon out of the air and cost very little.”

Forests and trees do indeed hold a lot of promise: Protecting and restoring the world’s forests, along with other land-oriented solutions, could deliver a third of the emissions reduction needed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by 2030 as agreed under the U.N. Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, forest conservation and reforestation at the necessary scale takes more than casting a magic spell. It is a big and complicated challenge.

For more than a decade, REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) has been expected to provide at least part of the solution. Yet, despite the initial excitement over implementation of REDD+ initiatives at national, subnational and local scales, evidence on how, when and under what conditions REDD+ works best is scarce.

“I had high hopes for impact assessment being an integral part of the REDD+ efforts,” said Arild Angelsen, a professor of economics at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and lead editor of the book Transforming REDD+: Lessons and new directions, which was published in 2018. “But, I was far too optimistic, and am disappointed over how few good impact studies have been conducted.”

Last week, researchers and partners from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) presented some of the research underway on impact evaluation in the context of REDD+ at the XXV IUFRO World Congress 2019 in Curitiba, Brazil, drawing in part on the book.

Two surprise findings

Transforming REDD+, takes stock of REDD+ implementation so far, and dedicates three chapters to reviewing existing impact assessments, both at policy and local levels. These chapters explain why the lack of rigorous impact evaluations – which include a counterfactual scenario and baseline data – is a problem, and point out opportunities to do better in the future.

Amy Duchelle, a senior scientist at CIFOR, leader of the climate change research team and one of the book’s co-editors, said that work on existing REDD+ impact evaluations brought about two surprises:

“While different types of evidence have their own strengths and weaknesses, we were surprised that so few impact evaluations have been done in the REDD+ space, given that it has been such a hot topic for more than 10 years,” she said.

In addition, the focus has been on evaluating the impacts of projects and less on policy elements related to REDD+, despite REDD+ being designed for implementation at the national level. Explaining the preference for project-level evaluations, Angelsen added: “Admittedly, it is more challenging to create a realistic counterfactual for a national or subnational jurisdiction.”

In reviewing the few, existing evaluations of forest conservation policies, the authors found that while national policies seem to contribute to forest conservation, they were much less effective than anticipated.

“Second, we were surprised by the lack of focus on forest impacts from REDD+ interventions, considering that changes in forest cover and carbon stocks are relatively more straightforward to measure compared to social impacts,” Duchelle said.

Based on the scarce evidence available on REDD+ impacts at the local level, another chapter of the book concluded that when it comes to conserving forests and carbon, local efforts produce modestly encouraging results. A third chapter looks more closely at what is known about how REDD+ interventions impact people’s welfare and livelihoods. In this respect, results were either small or mixed, but more likely to be positive when incentives were offered.

Angelsen said that impact evaluations are genuinely difficult to carry out, but he also pointed out another potential reason for why so few studies are commissioned: “Project and policy assessments are risky to the proponents, and if they ask for an independent evaluation, they have no control.”

 A new era for REDD+

Despite a lack of evidence from rigorous impact evaluations, it is clear that REDD+ initiatives have not yet stopped tropical deforestation. Overall, tropical forests are still in decline, although some encouraging trends can be observed in such countries as Indonesia. Yet, recent fires underscore how much still remains to be done.

But, REDD+ might be entering a new era.

First, the Paris Agreement encourages implementation of REDD+ to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Going forward, countries are to report on specific commitments, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), including forest-based emissions reductions. More than 50 countries have included REDD+ in their NDCs, but in many places clear policies and measures to tackle deforestation are still needed.

That is why evaluating which policy measures have delivered impact at national and subnational levels is important — because without learning from what has worked in the past, well-informed policy decisions are out of reach.

Second, results-based finance for REDD+ is beginning to flow. This year, the Green Climate Fund pledged to pay Brazil $96 million for reducing its deforestation, and the Norwegian government has granted both Indonesia and Gabon results-based financing for forest preservation. Also, California recently approved its Tropical Forest Standard, which paves the way for the state to invest in tropical forest conservation..

“Some of the original REDD+ ideas, especially commitments to results-based payments at the jurisdictional level, are starting to happen now,” Duchelle said. “It’s in this context that our research is more important than ever, as it can help inform what will be happening on the ground.”

A lot to learn, a lot to gain

To truly fulfill the promises of REDD+, more rigorous and more widespread monitoring of impacts is needed. Early planning, up-front investment and collection of baseline data are among the book’s recommendations to REDD+ implementers.

“Donors could make it a requirement to the recipients of finance: Include an independent and rigorous impact assessment in your plans and budget,” Angelsen said.

Indeed, the Green Climate Fund, which could provide billions of dollars for forest conservation in the coming years, is already moving in this direction. Collaborating with implementers, the Independent Evaluation Unit of the fund is working to ensure that rigorous impact assessment is incorporated into projects from the beginning. Considering the fund’s scale, this could be a first step toward making such requirements the new normal.

Duchelle said that CIFOR’s contribution to REDD+ discussions at the IUFRO Congress and elsewhere is meant to provide constructive criticism, not to tear anything down.

“We’re taking a step back and trying to understand what’s working, where, how, why and at what cost so that the ultimate objectives of REDD+ can be achieved – not only the climate benefits, but the broader sustainable development benefits that also go along with avoiding deforestation.”

California recently approved its Tropical Forest Standard, which paves the way for the state to invest in tropical forest conservation.

For more information on this topic, please contact Amy Duchelle at
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