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Wood-smoke and mirrors: How the Center for Global Development’s pseudo-science is used to promote Norway’s REDD myth

In September 2016, Jonah Busch of the Center for Global Development wrote a blog post about the aviation industry’s crazy proposals to “address” climate change by offsetting its ever increasing emissions. Busch is in favour of using REDD credits to offset pollution from flying.

Busch writes that,

Coupling airlines and forests would be a match made at cruising altitude. Airlines will need lots of emission reductions to meet their goal of growing business without growing emissions. Meanwhile, tropical forest protection offers a big and affordable potential source of emission reductions, but requires large and reliable funding.

Of course, he doesn’t write about the impact massively increased emissions from aviation would have on climate change. Nor does he mention the fact that ten years of REDD has done little or nothing to reduce deforestation. Or the fact that offsets don’t actually reduce emissions. And of course he doesn’t mention the fact that as climate change accelerates, the risk of forests burning is increasing.

I asked Busch where the Center for Global Development got its funding from for its work on aviation and REDD. Busch sent a link to CGD’s funding sources. CGD’s only funding for work on REDD comes in the form of US$2.91 million from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), to fund a project with the title “Unlocking financial support for REDD+”.

In September 2016, REDD-Monitor wrote about the perversity of the Norwegian government using its aid money to back a proposal that would allow emissions from flying to increase dramatically, thus making climate change worse.

Last week, REDD-Monitor received the following anonymous post about how Norwegian aid money is paying for the Center for Global Development to act as a PR agency to promote REDD. It is posted here in full and unedited.

Wood-smoke and mirrors: How the Center for Global Development’s pseudo-science is used to promote Norway’s REDD myth

In a recent blog article on the Global Forest Watch website, Jonah Busch of the Washington-based Center for Global Development (CGD), writes that “tropical forests are critical to preventing climate change”. After stating that “technological innovations in forest monitoring are helping advance not just the science of climate change, but also the economics and politics of fighting it”, he then goes on to describe in detail how remote sensing and monitoring of forests and mapping “can also be used to project future deforestation.” He then links this to the “politics of tropical deforestation and climate change”, which he says have advanced considerably thanks to these new monitoring technologies. Busch then cites the cases of Brazil and Guyana where, he claims, “good data has enabled payment-for-performance programs to keep forests standing”.

On the surface of it, this all sounds very credible, and certainly worthy. It’s a ‘good news’ story, which of course everyone concerned with forests and climate change wants to hear.

The only problem is that it is completely untrue.

Payments for non-performance

In the case of Guyana, not only was there no ‘performance’ (deforestation actually rose), but the Norwegian International Forests and Climate Initiative (NICFI), which funded this payment for non-performance programme, actually had to suspend payments too. The authorities were unable to even propose, let alone implement, enough coherent REDD projects to spend Norway’s money, which continued to be paid even when forest felling increased. In contravention of Norway’s aid regulations, NICFI then extended the period when the Guyanese government could draw down some of the money that had already been released. Under Norway’s nose, the government of President Bharrat Jagdeo allowed the country’s largest logger to carry on operating many huge logging concessions, even though these were clearly illegal (and were closed shortly after Jagdeo had been voted out of power, and Norway’s funding had been halted). A 2014 CGD study, of which Busch himself was an author, failed to find that the Norway-Guyana agreement had kept any forests standing.

In the case of Brazil, Busch uses a graph to show how deforestation has greatly decreased – but fails to mention that Norway’s ‘payment for performance’ scheme there actually coincided with a period when the decreases slowed, went into reverse and deforestation started increasing again.


Again, nowhere does Busch mention that a 2014 report by his own organisation had pointed out that the Norwegian payments to Brazil were unconnected with the deforestation decreases. Whilst CGD’s earlier report claimed to identify a number of ‘successes’ of the NICFI-funded scheme there, keeping trees standing was definitively not one of them.

Busch bemoans that “Payment-for-performance programs are still too few and far between”. This seems likely to remain the case, as the reality is that even schemes such as the Norway-backed Forest Carbon Partnership Facility are fast retreating from their earlier strict payment-for-performance basis. It is becoming ever clearer that many, perhaps most, tropical countries have no capacity or even desire to deliver the ‘performance’.

Who’s paying the piper, Jonah?

But perhaps Busch’s biggest deception through omission is that nowhere in the article does he state that his organisation is receiving $3m funding from NICFI during 2015-2020 in order to promote payment-for-performance REDD. This contract from Norway follows a previous $5m payment (shared with the Climate Advisers) from the government of Norway from 2013-2015 for CGD to “convene experts and thought leaders” and to “mobilize high-level elites to engage in the [REDD] policy process”. Under the new contract, CGD aims to “contribute to a doubling of global results-based financial flows for REDD+ from the climate and development funding streams of donors by 2020.” It will do so, it is claimed by “softening the barriers that are currently blocking large-scale finance for REDD+.”

In 2014, an article in the New York Times noted that CGD appeared to be failing to comply with US regulations requiring organisations acting for foreign governments to enter their name into a government register. That CGD is engaged in lobbying on behalf of the Norwegian government seems clear: its contract with NICFI states that “The main target groups for the proposed work include ministers of finance and development in donor countries”. In a written comment on CGD’s grant renewal proposal to NICFI in 2015, the Norwegian Embassy in Washington noted that CGD’s work “could be very important when American policy makers are considering strengthening their efforts on REDD+. Additional evidence and documentation … would probably also have positive influence on state authorities that are considering including international REDD+ offsets in their cap and trade-programs, like the State of California”. The document also notes that “The Norwegian Embassy in Washington DC informs that CGD’s research has influenced USAID’s thinking”. One of CGD’s 2016 papers is described as “Tropical Forests: Policy Recommendations for the US President”.

Yet a search this week of the Foreign Agents Registry, run by the US Department of Justice, found that, after four years of lobbying under contract to NICFI, and with new Norwegian funding in place to carry on doing so until 2020, CGD has still not registered itself as a foreign agent. Documents obtained show that the Norwegian government was fully aware of the concerns raised in the 2014 New York Times article when renewing CGD’s funding, and indeed encouraged CGD to focus on influencing American decision-makers – yet fail to show that any steps were taken to ensure that CGD complied with the rules on foreign agents. NICFI seems to have a selectively lax attitude to the regulatory compliance of the organisations which it funds.

Why Norwegian Money? Why Now?

Why Forests? Why Now?In his blog posting, Busch gives a plug for the 429-page report entitled ‘Why Forests, Why Now? The Science, Economics and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change’ which was published at the end of 2016, penned jointly by Busch and another CGD ‘Senior Fellow’, Francis Seymour. This door-step of a document – which purports to provide a detailed scientific case for increased REDD funding – does at least acknowledge that it was “made possible” by funding from the Norwegian government.

In their webpage summary of ‘Why Forests?’, CGD says that “At the landmark Paris climate conference in 2015, countries unanimously pledged to keep global temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius. The world cannot meet this pledge without stopping tropical deforestation”.

This is an outright lie. Desirable though it would be for many reasons to stop tropical deforestation, it nevertheless accounts for less than 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and this figure is declining. Most serious prescriptions for keeping to two degrees or less of climate change focus entirely on the need to de-carbonise energy production and use. The International Energy Agency says that keeping below two degrees is “technically feasible, but requires a fundamental transformation of the global energy system”. In one of the papers on which ‘Why Forests?’ is based, Busch himself acknowledges that “the percentage of total global greenhouse gas emissions that comes from tropical forest loss has been shrinking in recent years, and is likely to continue doing so as emissions elsewhere (e.g. energy use in China) grow rapidly.

Nevertheless, CGD goes on to say that “Ending tropical deforestation and letting damaged forests recover could reduce current annual global greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 24 to 30 percent”. This claim is based on Busch’s own work, and relies on manipulation of some highly implausible assumptions and scenarios. Starting from the IPCC figures of 8% of net global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions deriving from tropical forest loss, Busch then turns that into 16-19% of gross GHG emissions. This is the figure that would apply in the impossible scenario that all forest loss and degradation were to be stopped and yet the re-absorption of carbon into new vegetation following temporary clearance of forests, and partial felling, would continue. In addition, to reach the “24 to 30 percent” figure, a further equivalent of 8%-11% of global GHG emissions has then been added as the amount that could be sequestered through forest growth – thus seemingly double-counting some of the carbon absorption from tree regrowth, and including forest regeneration which is happening anyway in some parts of the world, regardless of any human interventions.

Not letting the facts get in the way of a good story…

Busch himself recognises important ‘caveats’ to his figures. As he explains, “some” of the forest carbon fluxes come from rotational slash-and-burn farming, meaning that the calculated absorption of carbon into new trees is only possible if the old vegetation is cut down by forest farmers in the first place. If the rotational forest farming is stopped, then some or all of the re-absorption of carbon stops too (i.e., the net emissions’ reduction figure apply, not the gross ones). So, as Busch says, whereas a big gain could in theory be made in the first year by “merely stopping all forest clearing”, maintaining this over time would become “increasingly challenging, since avoiding clearing in one year eliminates an area of land where a forest could potentially be replanted in subsequent years. Sustaining the current pace of forest regrowth would require continually identifying new lands available for reforestation.” In fact, to judge from the prescriptions under Norway-funded REDD programmes, rotational slash-and-burn farming represents by far the biggest source of forest emissions (and in the real world is the most intractable): unless some vast new areas of land for replanting trees can be found, then Busch’s theoretical calculations could pertain only to some place other than the real planet Earth.

Busch also points out that “the percentage of mitigation that could come from tropical forests is a purely biophysical metric. It doesn’t tell us how tropical forest mitigation compares to mitigation in other sectors in terms of cost or feasibility”. Apart from being technically implausible, the political infeasibility of Busch’s scenario is apparent when one considers that even CGD’s paymasters in Oslo have proven unwilling or unable to stop countries such as in Guyana, Indonesia and Brazil from increasing forest carbon emissions. Norway’s’ minister for Climate Change, Vidar Helgesen as much as admitted recently that NICFI-funded programmes will further serve to increase forest degradation and emissions in the future, by promoting large-scale industrial logging in the rainforests of the Congo – because that’s what the local government wants.

So, despite the CGD hype, and the hundreds of pages of ‘evidence’, the bottom line is that large-scale REDD of the kind described in ‘Why Forests?’ remains firmly in the realm of fantasy. CGD appears now to be in the uncomfortable position of promoting policies that its own evidence simply does not support.

The risks of CGD’s work being perceived as pre-determined – and essentially “PR” – were so serious that even NICFI itself became alarmed when assessing CGD’s funding renewal application in 2015. The agency noted that CGD appeared to be pre-judging the likely reactions to some of their proposed ‘research’, indicating that the findings of that research were already ‘pre-cooked’: NICFI noted that “It does not seem trustworthy when [CGD’s] findings are given in advance. This is true to the project as a whole: it states that it will analyse both opportunities and challenges, but the outcomes makes it clear that the project will cast the research in a positive light. Thus, the basis for and trustworthiness of the project becomes questionable. CGD therefore must revise the Project Document, to make it clear that their research is indeed independent and not pre-determined.”

Sensing the danger posed to the credibility of NICFI’s programmes and REDD more generally, the Norwegian government also commented that “Keeping a focus on positive aspects and neglecting potential negative sides or challenges, will undermine the REDD+ agenda in the long term.” Sadly for NICFI, CGD seems to have taking little heed of this. Posing as a think tank, CGD does what PR and lobbying companies would normally do: ignore the evidence and continue spinning a positive storyline. Such PR will not be limited to decision-makers; CGD will be using Norwegian money to buy into the international press to promote its pseudo-science. According to CGD’s ‘project implementation plan’ for 2017, “A content partnership with [UK national newspaper] The Guardian has been established (with complementary funding from the ClimateWorks Foundation), scheduled to commence in mid-January 2017 and to feature eight content pieces over two months.”

Quite how much CGD is now charging per day for Busch and Seymour’s time is not clear from the project documentation, but the total CGD salary charged to NICFI comes to a nice round $2m ($400,000 per year), or 71% of the total project cost.


According to CGD’s tax return for 2014, the organisation’s president Nancy Birdsall was paid a cool $438,935 in salary and other benefits (25% of which was being paid by NICFI), whilst Frances Seymour received $177,273 for an unspecified amount of work as a consultant.

Norway may have approved a second round of funding for CGD, but it got one thing right in its assessment of their 2015 proposal: “There is considerable reputational risk involved in this project. CGD may be seen as a ”greenwasher”, their research may be seen as partial, and the project may be seen as paying for positive PR which should not be covered by ODA funding.”

The disappeared decade

With an irony that was evidently entirely lost on CGD, ‘Why Forests?’ contains a foreword by Sir Nicholas Stern, the former World Bank senior economist and advisor to the UK government. Stern gushes that the report “strengthens the case for protecting tropical forests as a climate mitigation strategy” and should be “required reading” for anyone in a position to influence decisions about funding for climate programmes. Stern says that the report picks up where his own influential 2006 report on the economics of climate change left off.

What he, and Busch and Seymour, conveniently forget is that in 2006 Stern asserted, wrongly, that “Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and has the potential to offer significant reductions fairly quickly.” Ten years later, the vast expenditure by Norway and other governments on programmes such as the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility has proven to be staggeringly cost-inefficient. REDD has provided, at best, only minuscule reductions in carbon emissions. But as if the last ten years had simply not happened, CGD exactly echoes Stern’s assertion, stating “Protecting tropical forests is among the quickest and most affordable ways to decrease emissions”.

Norway keeps on pumping

One cannot fault the Norwegian government for the thoroughness of its efforts to create the appearance of a scientifically-backed case for REDD. But no amount of public relations, or repetition by the likes of Busch and Seymour of claims that ‘payment for performance’ has been successful, can “soften the barrier” of ten years of evidence to the contrary.

The evaluations of NICFI’s programmes run to many hundreds of pages – so many, in fact, that few people would ever want to read them. So far, though, almost no real lessons seem to have been learned from Norway’s promotion of payment-for-performance REDD. If NICFI were genuinely interested in protecting the world’s forests, then more valuable than paying think-tanks to churn out yet more pseudo-scientific PR, would be an honest evaluation of just why its huge bilateral and multilateral REDD programmes have achieved so very little in the last 10 years.

But this is unlikely to happen; the political stakes are too high for Norway, one of the world’s highest per capita carbon emitters, to accept that its conception of REDD is comprehensively failing. In the meantime, expect more big reports and opinion pieces from supposedly independent experts, in the pay of NICFI, doing Norway’s political bidding.


PHOTO Credit: Jonah Busch, Frances Seymour, and Michele de Nevers of Center for Global Development.

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