Tropical forests play a central role in keeping global warming in check. They store important carbon stocks, but each year deforestation or agriculture-related land degradation activities release about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
REDD+ (Reducing Emissions caused by Deforestation and forest Degradation), a policy initiative designed as an incentive to conserve tropical forests and curb emissions — often referred to as the Warsaw Framework — was under discussion from 2005, adopted at COP 19 U.N. climate talks in 2013 and recognized under the 2015 Paris Agreement.
At first REDD+ was conceived as a means for industrialized countries to pay forest owners and users in the Global South for delivering tangible results that would reduce emissions and contribute to efforts to meet global climate targets.
However, the global carbon markets based on compliance regimes around which financial credits were to be based did not materialize, and REDD+ initiatives are now largely funded by donors. These results-based payment programs are supported by Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI), and Germany’s REDD+ Early Movers Programme and the Green Climate Fund –the financing arm of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — among others.
While analyses of REDD+ have since focused on a range of topics, including how it has evolved at the national and sub-national policy level in light of these dynamics, in a recent research paper, scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and France’s Le Mans University have turned their attention to understanding more about remuneration and rewards for avoided or reduced deforestation following the implementation of REDD+ projects in Central Africa.
By analyzing communications through the application of a storytelling framework — specifically applied to analyze the storytelling techniques used to explain and promote REDD+ projects through carbon certification standards – the researchers learned that oversimplification contributed to the inability to realize objectives, disappointment and ultimately a loss of enthusiasm.
Their results, published in International Forestry Review assessed the role of narrative storytelling used by five main carbon certification standards.
Carbon standards are labels certifying that carbon credits are issued for projects implemented in accordance with viable socio-environmental criteria.
The initiatives they assessed — including Gold Standard, Verified Carbon Standard, Carbon Community and Biodiversity Standard, Plan Vivo and Social Carbon — promoted the feasibility of payments for and potential rewards earned dependent on a measured quantity of deforestation.
“Our goal was to highlight and understand how carbon certification bodies have structured their written REDD+ visions to incentivize the implementation of deforestation reduction projects in Central Africa,” said Moise Tsayem Demaze, a professor at Le Mans University.
“For many forest-rich countries in the region, particularly Cameroon, commitment to REDD+ was perceived as a way to benefit from financial payoffs, not only for deforestation reduction but also to boost economic and social development,” he said.
Tsayem Demaze, Lecturer Richard Sufo-Kankeu at Le Mans University, and CIFOR Senior Scientist Denis Sonwa wanted to learn whether the promises of the certifying organizations were fulfilled and whether the payments and rewards were attributed within the framework of the projects.
“Our main aim is to highlight the REDD+ narrative during the implementation of specific pilot projects in Central Africa,” said Sufo-Kankeu.
FRAMING THE DEBATE
Implementation was accompanied by a narrative under a “storytelling conceptual framework” specific to carbon labelling organizations, not the international bodies that promoted REDD+ programs with the objective of giving developing countries financial help, he said.
The storytelling techniques used by the organizations promote monitoring reduced deforestation and associated carbon emissions reduction. They emphasize results in terms of greenhouse gas reduction, payments and rewards in relation to carbon markets.
By adhering to principles used in marketing, business management and political communications they elicit a response from target audiences. The scientists observed the techniques promote positive values, a sense of urgency and the need to act.
The emergence of this communications strategy in the 1990s was inspired by the U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which hoped to make complex subjects more readily understood and elicit action.
This practice formed the backbone of storytelling techniques used by carbon standard initiatives for the launch of the first REDD+ projects in Central Africa, according to the researchers. Through the use of eco-labelling and forest certification schemes to promote REDD+, people initially thought that it could be easily implemented and produce financial rewards or payments in line with carbon credits.
The researchers developed the framework to analyze storytelling techniques through which they reviewed documents, identifying 11 REDD+ projects that were validated and certified in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Rwanda. The scientists sent a questionnaire to 30 people in all of the Central African countries. Of these, 13 experts replied, all were from Cameroon and DRC.
The results of the survey the scientists distributed revealed that the general belief was that REDD+ would generate funding for the forestry sector while improving living standards in rural areas.
“The projects selected were showcases for REDD+ feasibility at a time when it was not yet well delineated,” Sonwa said. “Our analysis demonstrates that they communicated about REDD+ in a way that emphasized its merits and underlined its feasibility and potential positive outcomes.”
Yet, although projects were implemented, none of the experts who responded to the survey said they were aware of a compliant REDD+ project in Central Africa for which financial payment or rewards compensation had been made.
The organizations oversimplified the feasibility of REDD+, indicating that “sustainable development” would be an outcome, for example, without detailed explanation and without taking into account the complexity of achieving it, particularly in forested areas which provide revenue and support livelihoods, the researchers said.
The researchers found that REDD+ projects were ultimately restricted to the carbon metric and the financial value of avoiding deforestation, with limited attention to ways and means of actually reducing deforestation while improving livelihoods, Tsayem Demaze said.
“It appears as though the REDD+ carbon market concept lost momentum in the region, and some of the original enthusiasm for REDD+ has been replaced by a combination of hope and disappointment,” Sonwa said.
The findings highlight the need to close the gap between promises and reality to see REDD+ produce tangible results at local level.
In the 2018 CIFOR publication Transforming REDD+, the question of dashed expectations was assessed, revealing that original aims have not been met due to initially unrealistic hopes.
“In hindsight,” write the authors, “many initial hopes for REDD+ were indeed idealistic.”
High expectations played a role in mobilizing finances and enthusiasm, increasing the chances for success, but expectations were also elevated, setting the stage for subsequent disappointment when achievements failed to materialize, the CIFOR book states.
“Although hopes are diminished, national actors have not yet given up on receiving international funding for REDD+, particularly as this money seems to represent an increasingly significant part of financial aid for development,” added Sufo-Kankeu.
In fact, Sonwa said, another results-based payment initiative is gathering steam in at least one corner of the continent. Last year, the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) received more than $300 million in commitments to incentivize carbon emission reductions.
A $150 million agreement between Gabon and Norway through CAFI marks the first time an African country will be rewarded through results-based payments in a 10-year deal for both reducing its greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation, and for absorptions of carbon dioxide by natural forests, NICFI said in a statement.
The partnership aims to provide Gabon with a major incentive for cutting greenhouse gases by setting a carbon price floor at $10 per certified ton.
“This commitment signals that change could be afoot,” Sonwa said. “As REDD+ evolves and other funders step in, African countries continue to implement climate and forest conservation initiatives to try and tap into support for sustainable measures that will ultimately keep forests standing.”
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