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Nature-based solutions are increasingly part of the international dialogue on climate change. In 2019, funders agreed to pay Brazil and Indonesia for verified avoided deforestation. And the International Civil Aviation Organization is considering whether airlines will be able to use forest-based credits to offset their carbon emissions.

At the same time, new research has revealed that the climate impact of losing intact forests is six times worse than previously thought – and recent estimates suggest that stopping deforestation, along with other natural climate solutions, could provide 37 percent of the emissions reduction needed by 2030 to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Forests are now firmly on the international climate agenda, said Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute (WRI). “Yet people think that REDD+ was something their grandparents did, that it’s over, and that it didn’t work,” she says, referring to the U.N.-backed approach to help fight climate change, known in its long form as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation.

That is a misunderstanding, she says – and in a new peer-reviewed WRI Issue Brief, she and scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and partner universities set out what’s been learned from REDD+ implementation on the ground over the past decade, and how future efforts can build on that experience.

“There is a very clear opportunity to integrate REDD+ with complementary global initiatives to protect and restore forests at jurisdictional scales,” said study lead author Amy Duchelle, senior scientist and leader of CIFOR’s climate change team.

The evolution of REDD+

In the early years, most REDD+ activities took place in small, local projects while the scheme’s architecture was being debated by international climate negotiators.

 

But under the 2015 Paris Agreement, it was agreed that REDD+ accounting and finance would be implemented at the country level, or across sub-national jurisdictions like states and provinces. REDD+ is no longer a series of isolated, one-off projects.

Operating at the jurisdictional scale addresses the risks of leakage – displacing deforestation to other areas – and of permanence, Seymour said. “If you’re implementing at project scale, you can have one catastrophic fire that wipes out your whole inventory of carbon stock, but if you’re implementing it at a very large scale, even a pretty significant fire isn’t likely to wipe out the whole thing.”

Problems like insecure tenure or a lack of indigenous rights can also only be solved at the national level. “It’s no surprise, but the key barriers to protecting forests are barriers that can’t be surmounted at the level of a project.”

Yet REDD+ projects have been a useful testing-ground, and have offered some important lessons that will help to shape the future of REDD+, said Duchelle – even if that future has moved away from projects. One example is the Katingan project in the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan, which is protecting an island of intact peat forest in a sea of oil palm and bolstering the livelihoods of communities in the project area.

“The key now is to figure out what the role of those REDD+ projects is in terms of overall carbon accounting: how Katingan fits in with what Central Kalimantan is doing, and what Indonesia’s reporting to the UNFCCC (U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change).”

   Field trip, Katingan project, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR.

It is true that REDD+ has not yet succeeded at its fundamental goal – reducing deforestation. Those trends are worrying in many places, but preparing for REDD+ has laid the groundwork for future progress, Duchelle said.

“REDD+ has helped to create a global alliance for forest protection that encompasses land tenure and rights recognition through its safeguards,” she said.

In addition, it has improved our understanding of deforestation drivers, galvanized the development of national forest monitoring systems, and increased national stakeholder engagement in forest policy decisions, Duchelle said.”

Slow progress?

The original idea of REDD+ was one of results-based payments for avoided deforestation, and it has taken more than a decade to create the conditions under which REDD+ can begin to function as it was envisioned.

But tropical countries should not be blamed for the delay, Seymour said. Behind the scenes, many tropical countries and sub-national jurisdictions have been making a lot of progress preparing for REDD+: developing baseline reference levels, setting up measurement, reporting and verification systems, and showing how they will ensure safeguards to protect the rights and livelihoods of vulnerable people.  Meanwhile, the obligations for donor countries are less clear.

“We’ve stacked up all of the things that the forest countries had to do and a lot of them have now done those things,” says Seymour. “The deal was those of us on the rich-country side were going to put up the big bucks. Well, guess who hasn’t held up their end of the deal?”

When REDD+ was proposed in 2007, it was thought that a global carbon market was imminent, and that that would “unleash the billions for REDD+,” Seymour said. Instead, a decade on, that market does not yet exist, and the international community is still finalizing the details in the context of negotiating the “rulebook” for implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Progress, therefore, needs to come from both donor and developing countries simultaneously. “We’re all in this boat together,” Seymour said. “Rich countries need to not only hold up our end of the bargain with the finance, but recognize that we’re paying little drips of money for forest conservation with this hand – and investing trillions in the things that are driving deforestation with the other hand.”

“Then we say: ‘Oh, you guys haven’t stopped deforestation yet.’ It’s absurd.”

The real test of REDD+ will come over the next few years, as the first generation of results-based payments starts to materialize, and their on-the-ground effects observed.

In February, Norway committed to pay Indonesia for saving 4.8 megatonnes of carbon dioxide through avoided deforestation in 2017, and the same month, the Green Climate Fund, a key source of financing for developing countries, agreed to pay Brazil $96.5 million for their forest-based emissions reductions in 2014-2015.

Help the flowers bloom

REDD+ isn’t a panacea, the study’s authors say. To solve the problem of tropical deforestation, we need to use all the tools we have – including deforestation-free agricultural supply chains, forest and landscape restoration, sustainable timber management, and renewed attention to strengthening the rights and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities.

“We should be helping all of these flowers bloom at the moment,” Duchelle said.

Aligning finance from REDD+ with pressure from companies who want to ensure their supply chains are deforestation-free, for example, might be just enough to change domestic policies, Seymour said.

“You can imagine a stacking of incentives, where the governor of a forest-rich province can say, okay, I’ve got a potential $200 million in carbon funding if I meet this target, and telling me that they’ll preferentially source palm oil from here if we do this, and I’ll get my picture with Leonardo DiCaprio if I do that.”

   Katingan, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR.

Transformational change will require new constituencies in forest-rich countries – groups of people across the political spectrum that see the value in forests.

That requires better engagement, about “not only the cost of land conversion and environmental disasters, but the quantified development benefits of standing forests,” says Duchelle. “We still need to bring in a lot of different people into these discussions.”

Challenges remain, but REDD+ has evolved – and Seymour says it still shows more promise than many of the other potential solutions to deforestation she’s seen unsuccessfully tried over the past 40 years.

“Progress has steadily been made, but the whole premise of REDD+, the large-scale finance for performance, remains largely untested. In the meantime, forests have continued to disappear, and yet the case for conserving them is stronger than ever.

“Why wouldn’t we use the mechanism that we have painstakingly negotiated, and that countries have invested in getting ready for? Now is the time.”

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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