Last week, Financial Times journalist Fiona Harvey lamented that “Without a sturdy fundraising mechanism, REDD is worthless.” Her solution is to revive carbon trading, “with a mighty effort of political will.” Her timing could hardly have been worse, coinciding as it does with the closure of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme to spot trading in carbon credits after yet another fraud.
Harvey’s article starts with an overview of why preserving forests is important and some of the causes of deforestation. But she has misunderstood some key aspects of REDD. She writes that “finally most of the details have been sorted out,” which is plainly not the case – many of the details are yet to be worked out.
Harvey then completely loses the plot:
We now know, the correct definition of a tree, how much carbon can be locked up in different areas of land, and how the rights of indigenous people can be safeguarded.
The definition of a tree is not part of the REDD negotiations. The definitions of “forest”, “deforestation”, “plantations” and “degradation” are crucial to REDD, but these have not yet been agreed on.
We do not yet know “how much carbon can be locked up in different areas of land”. In August 2010, Greg Asner of Stanford University, California, carried out research on 43,000 square kilometres of forest in Peru. According to his calculations, there was one-third less carbon stored in the forest than the figure given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Harvey’s comment implies that indigenous peoples’ rights are adequately respected in the REDD deal that came out of Cancun. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Safeguards are to be “promoted and supported” rather than being obligatory and there is no system in place for monitoring compliance with the safeguards.
“Only one problem remains,” according to Harvey. “Where is the money?” Her answer is the magic of the markets. Harvey waltzes through carbon trading, noting that it does have its opponents. These opponents point out inconvenient truths such as carbon trading does not reduce emissions. To which she replies, “in fact the system clearly does result in reductions if the targets are correctly set.” But the “system” that she’s talking about is the “cap” part of cap and trade. The cap reduces emissions. The trade does not. Currently we have no global cap on emissions and the emissions targets under the Copenhagen Accord are far from adequate to keep emissions below 2°C.
By the end of the article, Harvey’s grip on reality eludes her completely. REDD, she writes, “is a beautiful vehicle, lovingly crafted down to the last elegant detail, but without an engine; so it is doomed to failure.”
Kjell Kühne’s short paper “Why REDD+ is Dangerous (in its current form)” provides a good antidote to Harvey’s carbon trading puff piece.
Kühne is a German climate activist and university professor, currently living in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. He was in Cancun for the UN climate negotiations (where he dressed up as an oil palm – see the photo above. He did so as part of a demonstration by the Youth Climate Movement pointing out that the UN needs to sort out its definition of forests to ensure that industrial plantations and GE trees are excluded from REDD).
Why REDD+ is Dangerous (in its current form)
By Kjell Kühne
This essay shall help you understand the role REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in “Developing” Countries plus Conservation, Sustainable Forest Management and Enhancement of Carbon Stocks) can play in solving the climate crisis, and the role it can and will not play. There is a relatively small group of experts who have a deeper understanding of the technical details of REDD+ who sometimes lack a critical distance. On the other hand, many people who are against REDD+ do not understand too much of the technical details. With this essay, I hope to help both to get valuable additional information.
I will first outline the general goal for solving the climate crisis (zero fossil emissions), then talk about offsets in general. An outline of the challenges which REDD+ programmes face in fulfilling their promise is the main part. I conclude with a best case and a worst case scenario. Obviously it is our common responsibility to work towards the best case and avoid the worst. At the moment, we seem to be steering more towards the worst case scenario. Hence the title.
1. Zero fossil emissions are the principal climate goal, and REDD+ doesn’t bring us closer to that.
The “most important number on Earth” is 350. 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere is the mark below which we need to get if we want to continue having ice on the Earth’s polar caps in the long term and a coastline that we would recognize on the map (25-35 meter sea-level rise would be due if we stayed over 350 ppm for too long). For getting there, obviously zero fossil emissions are a must. And the sooner we reach that goal, the greater the likelihood that we will be able to bring atmospheric CO2 levels down fast enough to avoid triggering one of the several tipping elements that might result in “runaway climate change”. According to current knowledge (see e.g. the Copenhagen Diagnosis  and current political climate goals (maximum global mean temperature rise of 2°C or 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels), we need to hit the zero point globally around 2050, give or take a few years. That is a great transformation in little time and REDD+ could only buy a little time, while possibly – if set up as an offset mechanism – pushing the date of vigorous action back, which comes down to wasting that same time again (see next section).
2. Offsets postpone structural change and may even damage the climate goals.
REDD+ is not (yet) an offset mechanism. While technically speaking, this statement is true, because the Cancun text postpones the UNFCCC decision on this thanks to Bolivia’s opposition, the huge interest in REDD+ is closely linked to the expectation that it would “generate” emissions reductions at much lower cost than other mitigation options. This projection in itself is questionable , but economists seem to be considered representatives of the highest form of wisdom in our times, so if they say REDD+ will be cheap, it must be so. Their verdict, together with the urgency of climate change and the favourable image that rainforest protection has in the public sphere, this is quite an attractive package for the big players who are unwilling to change anything major in the way that our fossil economy works. California is working full speed on bringing tropical forest carbon into its compliance market and the US government seems to have put its REDD fast-start finance under the heading “get them into the market.” Take the offsets part out of REDD+ and the whole thing will deflate like an empty balloon. This is an argument sometimes used: if we can’t involve markets, we won’t get enough money to save the rainforests.
The basic task of our generation is to transform a fossil world economy into a renewable one. That task is not facilitated by the availability of cheap offsets on the carbon markets. And on the markets one ton of carbon from avoided deforestation shall equal one ton of fossil carbon extracted and burnt . But (“green”) forest carbon is not equal to (“black”) fossil carbon. While one is part of the natural carbon cycle the other is an addition to that cycle. And setting aside a few percent as a buffer doesn’t help much if a big part of the Amazon rainforest turns into a savannah or the food crisis at some point in the future obliges people to farm whatever land they can get hold of, including remaining forests.
While from a justice point of view offsets are very problematic, from a strictly carbon point of view, offsets could work fine – they could, if there was a global cap on emissions.
But at the current state of the climate negotiations, we are far away from that global cap. Annex-I countries have reduction targets which may include offsets. The major non-Annex-I countries have voluntary targets, which also include reductions from offset projects (as explicitly stated by Brasil in their letter of association with the Copenhagen Accord). This means that in fact any reduction achieved in an offset mechanism is counted twice! Once in the country buying the offset, and once in the country producing it. And this unfortunate situation will not change in the near future, because non-Annex-I goals are voluntary in nature. If Annex-I countries were to insist on excluding the offsets from non-Annex-I national accounting, there is nothing easier than to “correct” the voluntary goal by the amount of offsets sold. This situation will not change until we have binding goals for all countries, i.e. An effective global cap. And when will that be? For the time being, all UN offset mechanisms are not reducing emissions, they are increasing them. This applies to the CDM and would apply to REDD+ as well.
The pro-offsets argument that they make it possible for naughty emitters to commit to ambitious targets would need to be proven with real-life examples if we were to take it seriously. (I have my doubts about this and am looking for an institution to fund a little study on this topic.)
3. REDD+ works in theory. Making it work on a big scale in reality is a huge challenge.
The list of pitfalls and roadblocks for a successful REDD+ programme is long. You get a first idea by looking at the negotiation text . Especially the section on safeguards reads like a list of “what could go wrong with REDD+.”
Safeguards in the Text:
Permanence: See above.
Leakage: If protecting one piece of forest you always run the risk of loosing another one instead, in another corner of the community territory, in another region, another province or even another country. This has to do with the drivers of deforestation, many of which are rather flexible and while they persist, they will “go elsewhere” if one piece of forest becomes inaccessible to them.
Governance: The forest sector is quite corrupt. Bad governance is not the exception, but rather the rule. REDD+ could be an opportunity to change that. But who will make sure?
Indigenous and Local Rights: Forest peoples are among the least influential and powerful groups in many countries. If money is to be made with their forests (which they may not even “legally” possess), who will be there to defend their rights “to destroy the forest” (i.e. to live in it and with it) against the national government, corporate elites or foreign “conservationists”?
International Conventions: If you have signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) or the different Human Rights Conventions, does that mean that they are implemented on the ground? No.
Participation: Most REDD+ countries (and most others as well) have a rather poor track record on participation. Take this together with the little influence that forest peoples have (those “poor, backwards, dirty, uneducated and clearly underdeveloped” folks), and you will know what a policy making process will look like: tokenist participation of some colorful individuals at the most. Pro-market NGOs may of course participate much more, or in case the national ministry doesn’t have too much resources or know-how, they can even run the show.
Biodiversity and Natural Forests: What does the plus in REDD+ stand for? One third stands for conservationists and countries who have protected their forests and would like to see some money even in the absence of an imminent threat to their forests. And two thirds stand for the logging and plantations industry who see their chance in declaring logging operations to be “sustainable forest management” and monoculture plantations (even with GE trees) to be “enhancement of carbon stocks”. That biodiversity won’t benefit from that kind of REDD+ is obvious.
Co-benefits: Why do we have to mention benefits of the forests other than carbon, for example sustainable livelihoods of indigenous peoples? Because they could be “forgotten” by REDD+ policy makers otherwise. It seems that they would become easier to take into account if the mechanism was designed in a participatory manner with forest peoples, for example. But we are not talking about interlinkages yet. In my mind, the so-called co-benefits are the main benefits of forests, carbon “storage” is a co-benefit. But who am I to decide what the main purpose of a forest is anyway?
Unfortunately the simple fact of naming these evil spirits in the text doesn’t make them go away. The text leaves no doubt that addressing the safeguards is contingent on finance to be made available by Annex-I countries. Unless there are some major efforts on implementing these safeguards on the ground, they will remain on paper and we will probably be seeing “where REDD+ went wrong” stories popping up in different places, confirming the importance of each of the safeguards. This is an area where I personally see a lot of meaningful work to be done: getting the ball rolling on safeguards implementation.
Outside the “safeguards package”, and as if these challenges alone were not enough, we find a few other things to keep in mind:
Drivers of Deforestation: If there is a market for soy beans or palm oil or beef, does it matter if you set aside a big piece of forest land where none of those can be produced any longer? It does. Prices will rise and make these products more interesting wherever you can chop down forest to grow them. Unless the driver of deforestation, for example beef demand is tackled, emissions will leak. And unless you stop building roads through the forest that bring in land hungry people and industries, you will not stop deforestation. Unfortunately most of the drivers are related to business opportunities where you can make money. When politicians in REDD+ countries (and arguably anywhere) have to decide between the greater common good and money, they tend to choose the latter. That’s why we find reminders in the text saying “please, please, don’t forget the drivers of deforestation when planning REDD+” (not literally).
Land rights: While in the UNDRIP, indigenous peoples may enjoy rights to their land, in real life, things tend to get complicated. What if you are not indigenous? Or have lost your language? Or had to migrate recently? What if the government expropriated you, so you legally don’t own anything? Emiliano Zapata used to have a motto saying “the land belongs to who works it” … well, I guess I am a bit too old-fashioned.
Gender: It seems that in a male-dominated society new rules tend to go against the needs and priorities of women.
And then, there are a few considerations which didn’t make it into the Cancun text, but which I find important to mention anyway:
Perverse Incentives: If you pay for “avoided deforestation” you will never get away from paying the bad guy more than the good guy who protects his forests anyway. This could possibly be turned around, but it would not look much like the current REDD+ mechanism any more. It would be more a forest-cover facilitation mechanism which builds on the willingness of people to contribute to reforestation and forest protection efforts with their own means, if given the opportunity. The opportunity could be secure land rights for locals, a strong reduction of the drivers and some funding for things like seedlings and capacity building. People love trees and their planet. Why not leverage that almost untapped potential instead of throwing around money that will corrupt it?
Capitalism: Our current global economic system has one principal motor: money. It is the only thing you can know for sure: more money is always better than less money. But you can’t eat money and the system is getting quite shaky lately. Commodifying forests and opening another frontier to the speculation of the global money economy (forest carbon) does not sound like the right recipe for protecting forests and peoples who live in them. The train is too big, if money is to be made, it will roll over those minor concerns.
Elites: Elite capture of benefits is the rule in most REDD+ countries, in government programmes or development cooperation. When negotiating REDD+ rules, and later when designing its implementation, the representatives sitting at the table are the very elites we are talking about here. Negotiating the rules of distribution of a pie (money) with somebody who shall get a much smaller piece than he always used to get from any past pie, doesn’t sound like an easy job either.
Now after going through all the things that can go wrong, let me confess: I sincerely and wholeheartedly hope that the efforts so far put into REDD+ by many well-meaning people turn out to be meaningful in the end. I hope that they will not serve to create a mechanism that increases emissions and drives poor people off their land. So, what could REDD+ ideally look like, if it were to succeed in becoming part of the solution to the climate crisis?
4. The best-case scenario: Non-market REDD+ which empowers local people and creates sustainable livelihoods from the forest.
First, let us start thinking smaller-scale. Because a market-based (i.e. offsets) system would reduce ambitions, not emissions and we want this to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Then, let us think that it would be possible in some countries to start a participatory process where even the forest peoples get a say and in a consensual way, a national system is designed to protect remaining forests. In order to make that permanent, local people would need to create sustainable livelihoods from the forest which meet both their basic needs (water, food, shelter, health), and the need for a little money income to meet other needs (education, clothes, transport). Parks without people do not seem like a good way to work this, because while it may be possible to keep people out of an area today, in the future pressure will increase in the face of climate change, a shrinking natural resource base and an increasing population.
In the best case scenario for REDD+, the government works on their side of the job: addressing drivers, while local people are in charge of organizing the work locally, because they have secure rights to the land.
5. The worst case scenario: triple emissions and human rights abuses.
In the worst case, a coup would throw over the indigenous Bolivian government, the main opponent to a market-based REDD+. The European Union would cease to resist and a REDD+ offset-scheme would be pushed through in Durban at COP17. In Southern Mexico, where the state government is eager to sell REDD+ credits to California, paramilitary groups would start killing “intruders” (i.e. indigenous people) who do subsistance farming on land that was expropriated per presidential decree and is now under a REDD+ contract. While companies and governments are eager to greenwash REDD+ and buy up the credits and pump down more money, the mechanism would “clear” forests of people who obviously had been “destroying the forest” or at least “doing harm to carbon stocks”, though not quite as fast as the bigger industries who simply move elsewhere in the country (which is okay, since subnational REDD+ is now approved as an interim measure without an end date) or to another country. When kicking forest peoples out of the forest – in the best case they would receive money in return for not going back – the cultural knowledge on how to sustainably use the forest ecosystem for human survival and wellbeing gets lost.
While emissions get displaced (which means no overall reductions), offset credits get double counted (minus one) and in the not so far future, those forests still go up in smoke, through “natural” processes such as a drier climate, through forest fires, through invasion by hungry people which industrialized agriculture can’t feed any longer or simply through a political change in the country, where the new government does not recognize the legitimacy of contracts signed by the former government. In any case, they go up in smoke, and it is minus one, again. So now we have three times as many emissions as in the absence of the programme! While at the same time devouring climate funds that are thus no longer available for other urgent mitigation tasks. And devouring the energy and efforts of thousands of smart and well-meaning people who originally intended to protect forests and the climate at the same time.
If you have made it to this point, I can safely assume that you are quite interested in REDD+ and in the future of our planet. I am not arguing here that REDD+ is a bad idea. My point is that it will take a lot of work and caution to make it work in real life. I invite you to do your own thinking and analyzing on top of what I have been able to bring to the table. And I invite you to work towards a zero fossil emissions future where we protect our forests without having to pay each other money or threatening to cut them down. I am sure that we can solve the climate crisis, let’s pick the right path, even if it is uphill.
Comments are very welcome! firstname.lastname@example.org Kjell Kühne, 27.1.2011
 ^ See the Rainforest Foundation’s warnings here: http://rainforestfoundationuk.org/files/McREDD+%20English.pdf
 ^ This has been avoided in the only forestry projects that are allowed in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM): Afforestation and Reforestation (A/R) Projects. They produce only temporary credits, due to the fact that trees store carbon only temporarily. These temporary credits don’t fetch a good price on the market, therefore the intention with REDD+ is to make sure that the credits are “for good” instead of temporary. Obviously trees are still only able to store carbon temporarily.