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Guest Post: Redeeming REDD

Michael Brown has more than 30 years experience in international development. He is the president and founder of Satya Development International, a consulting firm based in Washington DC. He works on REDD and issues of free, prior and informed consent, indigenous peoples and environmental compliance.

He recently wrote a book presenting “a major critique of the aims and policies of REDD as it is currently structured”. But it’s not only criticism. To enhance REDD’s prospects, he provides what the publisher terms as “a roadmap for developing a new social contract that puts people first”. The book is titled “Redeeming REDD: Policies, Incentives and Social Feasibility for Avoided Deforestation”, and is available this month.

REDD-Monitor invited him to write a Guest Post about the book:

    Redeeming REDD: Policies, Incentives and Social Feasibility for Avoided Deforestation

    By Michael Brown, Satya Development International, June 2013

    On its current trajectory, REDD will fail. Rights-based critics focus on weak REDD safeguard policies. Others critique the neoliberal approach to commodification of carbon and reliance on carbon markets (voluntary or compliance) as the solution to avoiding deforestation. My focus is with the standards used to design and implement projects; in focusing on seemingly plausible theories of change, standard setters do not pay enough attention to what is needed for projects to actually work.

    Because I felt feasibility was one of the issues with REDD that is not being addressed (or at least not addressed adequately) I’ve written a book titled, Redeeming REDD: Policies, Incentives and Social Feasibility, published by Earthscan in June 2013.

    The book analyzes problems with REDD as it has evolved, but also presents a personal vision of a possible solution for moving forward. The publisher calls the latter a “roadmap”. Readers can assess whether my proposals are worthy of the term or not.

    Proponents of REDD argue about triple win possibilities for climate, biodiversity and people. Opponents of REDD speak about the predatory green economy, REDD as a new form of colonialism, rights abuses, carbon cowboys and susceptibility to other forms of grander organized crime corruption. Meanwhile, I have been fascinated by the implicit assumption that money is the main limiting factor.

    From the REDD proponents’ standpoint, the argument is that if carbon finance can be mobilized, REDD can be implemented and the 17% or so of emissions resulting from deforestation could be mitigated. On this point – the feasibility of the enterprise – it seemed that no one was critically examining the basis for belief in planners and implementing agencies for REDD to work. People seem to believe that the basic off-the-shelf tools, methods and approaches out there would need a bit of tweaking in the current so-called preparatory, “Readiness Phase”, and the world would be ready for programmatic roll-out, massive scaling up, by 2015 (or 2020 as now seems more likely), once the monies were mobilized.

    I explore the credibility of this belief at length in the book. The common assumption that the limiting factor in REDD is money, and that basically, the overall approach will be ready to go at the end of the Readiness Phase is, I believe, disingenuous, or worse. Conversely, the drive to reduce what is referred to as “transaction costs”, many of which if avoided will impact on the social feasibility of REDD, implies that those monies made available are not being optimally spent.

    I also look at broader set of issues about how the global community has approached development and conservation over the past 30 years. With REDD, it seemed we were perched to plunge enthusiastically into a scaling up and repeat of failed policies and practices, for little justification save that a genuine global problem – anthropogenic climate change, in this case the deforestation component of it – needed addressing, and the world was simply not prepared to tackle the root of the problem. So REDD was marketed as this low-hanging fruit that relatively speaking, would not cost much to do, would lead to triple win outcomes and best of all, could enable Northern countries to demonstrate seriousness in tackling anthropogenic climate change without needing to fundamentally alter economic systems and behavioral practices. That is, REDD sold as a key offset component to unsustainable Northern systems and practices at the root of global climate change.

    I review the implications of REDD in light of alarming CO2 trends (most recently crossing the 400 ppm CO2 mark), with nary a sign that the global community is looking at the deep structural economic and consumption issues that many scientists and activists believe need addressing. Regardless of the validity of the avoided deforestation issues needing addressing, is REDD, wittingly or not, serving as a diversionary smokescreen for Northern countries and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa)?

    I make the case for why and how REDD could be “redeemable”. But my basic concern is with avoided deforestation, a most worthy objective, and less so with REDD as the obligatory solution.

    Standards – REDD’s weak underbelly

    It is the weak standards, supported by an array of powerful institutions and interests, that allow suboptimal projects to get funded in the first place. I am not convinced that investors in REDD, even on the voluntary market side, understand the weak underbelly of the projects they are backing. Some investors may be using REDD to fulfill Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) obligations. Others may be putting together portfolios of projects in the hope that they one day become valuable if a compliance regime is enacted and early projects are brought under the REDD tent. Regardless of their motivations, I believe that investors may well be delusional as to the plausibility of how REDD projects are being designed and implemented. In particular, I think the risks of impermanence are being seriously underestimated in most cases.

    The REDD approach is weak on addressing the feasibility of projects. Serious issues remain to be resolved with Measuring, Reporting and Verification (MRV) and with carbon finance (even if we accept the premise of the need for carbon markets to begin with). But most seriously, the manner in which social issues are approached in REDD is thoroughly implausible. Any failure at this level could lead to either carbon impermanence, or conflict, or potential human rights abuses. As such, legitimate questions can be raised about what we all really think we’re doing here. Redeeming REDD explores other possible explanations for why we collectively seem willing to be going down what some may label a delusional pathway.

    That said, I’d like to think the book is a “fair critique”, insofar as I am not opposed to REDD on philosophical or moral terms. Instead I am interested in how credibly the REDD mechanism is approaching extremely difficult challenges. Nor do I accept wholesale the outright rejection of all things neoliberal in REDD and the green economy, which is at the heart of the most articulate and arguably most important critiques of REDD.

    While I find myself in agreement with much of the substance in the many critiques of REDD, my focus is on a different set of issues, that has, surprisingly, never caught much attention in REDD (or, in fact, other areas of development and conservation). This set of issues is the one I find most troubling, because it pertains to the credibility of the REDD approach. Here, I find grounds not only for pessimism, but a bit of incredulity that as a global community we accept the “good enough” approach to strategies and methods that proponents are selling under the banner of REDD.

    In my opinion, REDD is anything but a technocratic problem. Yet much space in REDD policy discussions is taken up with MRV and with carbon finance, along with the important ancillary issue of “safeguards” to protect people from harm. This is not to say that there are not technical issues, or that issues like administrative corruption are not important policy issues. Of course they are, and such issues impact on the feasibility of REDD.

    But the real thorny issues in REDD have more to do with social and political problems that go way beyond the issues of improved environmental governance that many rights-based groups have been underscoring for years now. This is the necessary starting point. Here too though, I think while rights-based groups have repeatedly hammered the point home, there is an outstanding question about what specifically to do about it all, beyond doing everything rights-based groups exhort doing.

    New social contracts are needed

    My own take is that focus should be on mustering the political will to create “negotiation spaces”. Stakeholders involved in avoided deforestation need first and foremost to craft new social contracts at various levels. Without new social contracts, all the best principles and standards in the world are not likely to result in avoided deforestation – e.g. reducing greenhouse gas emissions while not hurting people or destroying biodiversity, and supporting the development aspirations of local people. (The last of which, I argue, is quite different from, albeit complementary with, safeguards.) Negotiation is thus key but not, of course, a panacea.

    In addition to looking at how REDD programming approaches social dimensions, I look into the specific issue of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), itself both a safeguard and a principle. Its current fuzziness in terms of definition and how organizations approach it undermines social feasibility which thus undermines REDD feasibility.

    On FPIC I explore what in fact this means in the many communities where local people are highly, for lack of a better phrase, “socially capital challenged”. When impoverished, largely illiterate (in terms of western agreements) communities, some of which have corrupt chiefs and elites, sign off on REDD, how are we to interpret the meaning of “informed”? I believe this is an area that bears far greater thought than either proponents of REDD or rights-based critics of REDD have invested in. And here, will creating “negotiation spaces” for communities lacking developed analytical and negotiation skills really make a difference? Much more reflection is needed on capacity building in REDD.

    The social contract issue is fundamental to the book’s “roadmap”. Until we put key stakeholders in the positions to negotiate contracts at various jurisdictional levels, REDD stands little chance of succeeding. If we do so, to the thresholds needed, perhaps REDD can be redeemable.


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