Forest protection is not usually a huge money spinner. Logging, mining, clearing forests for grazing, or building a new city – these are ways trees are often turned into easy dollars.
But rampant deforestation represents the largest share of the land use changes that are responsible for 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, research shows, which makes chopping down trees second only to burning fossil fuels in the undistinguished league table of the biggest anthropogenic contributions to global warming.
It is clear that something must be done to help forests stand a chance in the ruthless modern marketplace. That is where REDD+ comes in.
Review of REDD+
REDD+ stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, plus conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.
Essentially, REDD+ is one of several approaches accepted by the United Nations to mitigate the effects of climate change by offering financial incentivizes to governments to protect their forests instead of tearing them down.
Unlike other approaches, the main attraction of REDD+ is that forests have many economic and environmental benefits besides carbon storage. Forests are home to many species of animals and plants, while the trees play a vital role in the water cycle and can be harvested for useful forest products.
The first payout under REDD+ was approved for Brazil in February 2019: $96.5 million in return for reducing deforestation in 2014 and 2015. The theory goes like this: by slowing down deforestation according to previously measured reference levels, trees that would have been cut down are not. In Brazil in 2014 and 2015, those un-toppled trees represented 18.8 million tons of carbon not released into the atmosphere, and thus not contributing to anthropogenic climate change.
REDD+ in Ethiopia
After eight years of hard work, Ethiopia has joined the roster of 39 that have now submitted Forest Reference Emissions Levels for REDD+. In theory, Ethiopia is now ready to defend its forests against the economic forces that would prefer the bulldozer. In practice, it all depends on their rigorous system of Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV).
A functional MRV system is a prerequisite before countries can claim results-based payments or finance for their REDD+ activities. The system must follow technical guidelines painstakingly set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that cover the national emissions baseline, the types of greenhouse gases being measured and how emission reductions will be verified.
Measuring avoided deforestation is not a straight-forward task and the international scientific community has been supporting countries like Ethiopia with data, analysis and recommendations to help them build their own systems and policies. As part of this effort, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has recently published a comprehensive review of REDD+ MRV in Ethiopia.
A matter of life and death
Control of deforestation and land degradation can be a matter of life and death in Ethiopia. In the 1970s, the country suffered from harsh droughts, which contributed to devastating famines that ensued. In the mid-1980s, more than 1 million people had succumbed to starvation.
One of the co-authors of the REDD+ MRV review, Melaku Bekele of the Wondo Genet College of Forestry and Natural Resources, explains: “Forestry is extremely important for Ethiopia due to the country’s rugged landscape, high degradation, and fast-growing population.”
Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. This has put immense pressure on its forests as the rising population also raises demand for agricultural expansion, fuelwood, and more cattle hungry for land, fodder and water.
The government responded by developing its Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) strategy in 2011, which aims to triple gross domestic product and achieve middle-income status for the country by 2025 – all while developing a green economy that is low in greenhouse gas emissions and avoids degradation of its natural resources.
The idea is that REDD+ will target the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation. But however important the forests may be, the day-to-day struggle to feed their families means that local communities cannot always afford to protect their forests.
Habtemariam Kassa coordinates CIFOR research activities in Ethiopia. “The reality is that by converting a portion of forest land to agricultural land, local people get more income,” he says. “They are not currently compensated for conserving the forest nearby, as forest goods and services are still considered free societal resources.” The government, he adds, is unable to ensure protection of its state forests, even those identified as ‘priority forests.’
Two steps forward, one step backwards?
“REDD+ has helped the revival of forest development, which was undermined for over two decades by the government,” Bekele says.
In their review paper, Bekele and his co-authors cite the establishment in July 2013 of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change as a significant moment in Ethiopia’s forest development revival. Unfortunately, the review goes on to note that the Ministry was downgraded in 2018 to become the Environment, Forest and Climate Change Commission.
Facing climate change and desertification from the Sahara, the question still remains: is the conservation of Ethiopia’s forests and the restoration of degraded land being taken seriously by government officials at all levels, including those at the top?
New green shoots of optimism have emerged this year: in May, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali launched an ambitious program to plant 4 billion seedlings by October and gave state employees time off in July to plant a record-breaking 350 million trees in just one day.
“The risks are huge”
The new report acknowledges the significant progress that Ethiopia has made in developing a system of MRV that will evaluate greenhouse gas emissions as well as carbon capture from the creation of new carbon sinks – in other words, forests.
With technical support from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Ethiopia has developed a National Forest Inventory to monitor changes in forest cover.
Another key milestone for MRV in the country was the agreement of a new definition of forest cover that now includes dense woodlands, and dryland and bamboo forests. The new definition was used to establish the baseline Forest Reference Levels submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in January 2016.
But Bekele and his colleagues have also identified a panoply of risk factors that could derail the delicate process of REDD+ MRV. “The risks are huge,” Bekele says, before reeling off a list. “Weak organizational capacity, poor coordination among sectors, little government budget and dependence on external sources, lack of community empowerment.”
Power to the People
Since the 1990s, non-governmental organizations have worked to increase community engagement in the management of state owned natural forests, which now cover 17 million hectares (15 percent of the country) at least according to government figures submitted as reference levels for REDD+.
Local people could well play a crucial role in the laborious on-the-ground forest monitoring necessary to track afforestation, but the new report sees this as an area where there has been “little tangible action either initiated or planned.”
Today, participatory forest management (PFM) operations are progressively being taken over by the government and are now linked directly to REDD+, according to Bekele’s co-author, Manuel Boissière, an ethnobotanist with both Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD) and CIFOR.
“The United Nations pushes for more community participation, without really considering whether it is feasible or even burdensome for the community,” he says. “Participation should indeed be encouraged in activities where the community benefits, but if participating in an activity brings more burden than benefit, then maybe informed consent is enough.”
Benefits for the local stakeholders could include higher incomes or legal rights to the land they care for, which currently belongs to the state. But, at the moment, the direct benefits of participation are not clear.
“Current payment levels simply are too low to create economic incentives for communities to conserve forests,” Kassa says. “Especially when we have a smaller area of forest surrounded by poor households because participation has a cost to those who participate.”
“We should be clear about the kind of ‘local participation’ that is expected,” Boissière explains. “It should not be a catch-all phrase to get communities to attend endless meetings and provide free labor for activities whose objectives do not really respond to local needs.”
It remains to be seen whether the Ethiopian government will pass on the benefits to local communities if and when it starts to receive payments through REDD+. “We hope that communities will receive most of the benefit,” Bekele says, “but the benefit sharing mechanism has not yet been applied on the ground.”
Show me the money
The preparatory phase of REDD+ was financed by Norway, the World Bank and others. “The dollars that come through the central bank are critically important for the government,” Bekele points out. “That is a real benefit at the moment.” But regular income from REDD+ carbon sales is still a long way off.
Top-down approaches like REDD+ are not the only solution to climate change and their effects take many years to reveal themselves. As Bekele says, you must go through “a complex set of rules and regulations, both global and local, before you see the light.”
REDD+ is complicated to administer, difficult to monitor, and often relies on community participation without necessarily ensuring that the benefits are felt directly by those communities. “Government activities like REDD+ need to engage local communities very early on in the project,” Boissière says, “and not just when they need man-power.”
Kassa broadens the criticism to include international aid. “If the international community is committed to reducing deforestation and land degradation, then they should make significant investments in supporting countries like Ethiopia in their efforts to reduce both deforestation and the poverty of forest-dependent communities,” he says.
REDD+ is far from perfect. Nevertheless, it does put forest conservation back into the world economy. The laborious system of MRV might not be sufficient, but it is one of the many tools necessary so that Ethiopia can deliver their much-lauded green economy and choose trees over easy dollars.
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