in DR Congo

The lost REDD decade. Highlighted by counterfactual baseline nonsense in the Democratic Republic of Congo

“The technology is well known and has been available for thousands of years. Everybody knows how not to cut down a tree.” That spectacularly naive comment came from Norway’s then-prime minister Jens Stoltenberg in December 2007 at the launch of Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI).

To be fair on Stoltenberg, he wasn’t the only one exaggerating how easy stopping deforestation would be in the brave new world of REDD.

A year earlier, Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Review, claimed that,

Curbing deforestation is a highly cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and has the potential to offer significant reductions fairly quickly.

In contrast to this more-than-a-decade-old optimism, a recent article by Jutta Kill, published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, describes REDD as “A lost decade for international forest conservation”. Instead of reducing emissions quickly and cheaply, global emissions and deforestation have both increased in the past 11 years.

Private sector funding for REDD?

Kill notes that one of REDD proponents’ central arguments is that the funding for REDD will have to come from the private sector. The public sector simply does not have sufficient funds to stop deforestation.

The argument that private sector money is needed to address climate change is a common justification for carbon trading. Maurice Strong was a Canadian oil businessman, who was also the first head of the UN Environment Programme, and Secretary General of the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. In 2000, in his autobiography “Where on Earth are we going?”, Strong wrote that,

[T]hough governments must establish the policy and regulatory frameworks for emissions trading, the prime actors in developing and applying the agreements will be private-sector companies, financial institutions and individuals, and most of the capital involved will be private. This is particularly important as foreign aid is now in decline and private investment accounts for the principal flows of financial resources to developing countries.

Of course Strong couldn’t possibly know that the price of Clean Development Mechanism carbon credits would collapse in 2011-2012 and remain flatlined at nearly zero since then:

But Strong should have known that carbon trading would have no impact whatsoever on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Decades of carbon trading and more than 25 years of UN climate negotiations have made no difference to the steady increase in CO2 since 1960:

The private sector was supposed to get involved in financing REDD either by buying REDD carbon credits, or by investing in REDD projects.

Kill points out that the expected private sector funding of REDD has “not yet materialised”. Since the beginning of REDD, about 90% of the funding has come from public sources (and the most generous government is Norway – REDD’s major donor is using rainforests to greenwash its oil industry).

Jurisdictional REDD – back to the public sector?

Kill writes that the initial focus of REDD was on individual projects that were run either by the private sector or international conservation organisations such as The Nature Conservancy or Conservation International. This focus has shifted over the years to jurisdictional REDD, aimed at federal states, provinces, or countries.

Kill notes that,

[T]he focus on administrative units such as states or provinces inevitably shifts the emphasis of REDD+ from private to public actors: State institutions play a key role in jurisdictional REDD+ programs, while REDD+ projects initiated by private actors are integrated into such state programs. The more private sector REDD+ projects exist in a given area prior to the development of such jurisdictional REDD+ programs, the trickier this integration.

The shambles of the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility in the Democratic Republic of Congo illustrates these problems.

On 21 September 2018, the World Bank and DRC signed an Emission Reductions Payment Agreement, under which the Carbon Fund agrees to buy 11 million Emission Reductions (carbon credits) from the Mai Ndombe REDD programme. Each carbon credit will cost US$5, giving a total of US$55 million.

The agreement was signed – in violation of the Bank’s own rules, as Kill points out – before a benefit sharing plan was finalised. To make matters worse, the DRC government’s action plan “focuses on smallholder agriculture in particular and does not address causes of large-scale deforestation such as industrial logging”, Kill writes.

The Environmental Investigation Agency pointed out the failure to address industrial logging in its 2016 comments on DRC’s Emissions Reduction Programme. Needless to say, neither the FCPF nor the DRC government took any notice of these comments.

Fictional REDD baselines

Since 2011, a US company called Wildlife Works Carbon has been running a REDD project on part of the FCPF Mai Ndombe programme area. The Wildlife Works Carbon project will be absorbed into the FCPF Mai Ndombe REDD programme.

In 2016, a paper published in the International Forestry Review questioned the baseline for Wildlife Works’ project, arguing that “the baseline scenarios in REDD+ projects amount to untestable guesses”.

In the Project Appraisal Document for the Mai-Ndombe REDD programme, the World Bank confirms that Wildlife Works overestimated the rate of deforestation in the absence of its project:

an existing legacy project – the Wildlife Works Carbon (WWC) Mai Ndombe conservation concession – was validated with a project baseline methodology prior to the jurisdiction determining its own baseline under the fully-fledged ER Program. To be integrated and rewarded for performance over the ERPA period (2018-2024) the WWC project was required to reduce its baseline by 33%.

The World Bank does not explain how it determined that Wildlife Works had over-estimated its baseline by 33%. Or whether 33% of the carbon credits that Wildlife Works sold since 2011 are no longer valid (which would presumably mean that Wildlife Works would have to buy these imaginary credits back from the companies that bought them).

But this isn’t a problem with a specific baseline, or an argument about whether REDD is additional or note, because as Larry Lohmann, writer and activist with the UK-based Corner House, points out, such arguments are nonsensical.

As Larry Lohmann writes,

the problem is not “bad baselines” but the concept of counterfactual baselines itself. That reality does more than invalidate any particular REDD project. It invalidates REDD (and all other offsets) as a whole.


Leave a Reply