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Guest Post: The Amazon fires mark the end of REDD+

Lauren Gifford, PhD is a human-environment geographer who has studied REDD+, climate policy and forest conservation in the Amazon and beyond since 2007. She submitted this guest post looking at the implications of the fires in the Amazon rainforest for REDD.

The Amazon fires mark the end of REDD+

By Dr. Lauren Gifford, 27 August 2019

As the Amazon rainforest burns, and reaches what some scientists have called a “tipping point,” beyond which it might never recover, it is time to unequivocally call an end to the experiment that is REDD+, the development mechanism designed to offset carbon dioxide pollution via investment in tropical forest conservation. The attempt to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation has failed.

The fires in the Brazilian Amazon are, in part, typical forest ecosystem processes, as some forest experts have shared. But they are also the product of complex political economic forces, led by a money- and power-hungry, anti-Indigenous political regime. We must not overlook the political rhetoric that has provoked violence on this invaluable ecosystem, and the people who depend on it for survival.

Since taking office January 1, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has widely incited anti-indigenous sentiment. He has spoken about the value of the resources in the Amazon, and positioned indigenous and forest dependent communities as obstacles to resource extraction and capital accumulation. He has denied indigenous land tenure claims and encouraged the murder, abuse, and violent displacement of indigenous communities. The fires we see burning are the direct result of Bolsonaro’s encouragement of extractive industries to take what they want; the fires are the primal image of state-sponsored disregard for the culture, ecology, and biodiversity of the Amazon. They are the embodiment of capitalism and fascism run amok.

REDD was designed to incentivize landholders to maintain forests in exchange for payments that eclipsed profits from deforestation and subsequent land uses, like agriculture or grazing. But REDD was never designed to combat widespread state-sanctioned violence. If the people who manage the forests are dead or dispossessed, who is left to protect the land from development and extractivism?

The Amazon fires are a brutal exposure of the fallacy of REDD to protect forests and sequester rogue carbon. Continued engagement with REDD exposes NGOs and governments as strictly motivated by the business of development – the redistribution of capital under the guise of virtue – and less concerned with climate action, and protecting forests and the communities that depend on them. NGOs increasingly tag on “co-benefits” to REDD projects, where conservation finance is spent on a range of pet projects involving gender equity, community-based forestry, or improved local livelihoods. But these are development projects, and research by myself and others have shown they do little to address climate change or carbon sequestration.

The Promise of REDD

About 12 years ago REDD was embraced by the global climate policy community as an environmental development mechanism that would serve the dual goals of protecting endangered tropical forests while addressing atmospheric carbon concentrations. Polluters would invest in forest conservation, which would protect against deforestation and forest degradation which, in turn, would foster increased carbon sequestration, therefore removing climate change-causing carbon from the atmosphere. Each ton of carbon is accounted for, valued and credited, and the sequestered forest carbon traded on international carbon markets – allowing polluters to balance their regulatory carbon budgets, or boast about taking steps towards carbon neutrality. Maps of above-ground live carbon sinks (i.e. trees) circulated showing Brazil as “the Saudi Arabia of live carbon,” as one of my grad school professors called it, alluding to how much money could potentially circulate from pricing and selling Amazon forest carbon credits.

But REDD faltered from the beginning, experiencing a failure to launch, especially at the scale at which proponents advertised. While there have been some “successful” showcase projects in Latin America and Southeast Asia, by and large REDD has failed to deliver on its promises. Yet for some reason, disappointment in the REDD mechanism is a taboo subject in many development and conservation circles.

For years, many leaders in government, NGOs and academia have dismissed critics of REDD as leftist naysayers. Indeed, many tenured faculty who advised my research at various points, were quick to marginalize critiques of REDD as fodder for activists and people uninterested in “real” solutions to climate change.

As a long-time critic of REDD, I have encountered significant pushback from academics, NGO workers, and government leaders who are committed to seeing REDD through. My experience isn’t unique. Anger toward REDD critics, and even those who simply raise too many questions, was a big part of a recent ProPublica piece on the failures of REDD. I still don’t understand the level of institutional, and personal, investment in a flawed development mechanism. Why is REDD the sword so many development practitioners are willing to die on?

When I call REDD problematic I am often met with, “So what IS the solution?” My response is: “The solution to what? Why are your motivations to engage in a forest carbon offset project? What is your end game?” If your goal is to support large scale carbon sequestration to address climate change, REDD is not the answer. If you want money to support forest-based development projects, then REDD is fine for that. But don’t call something climate mitigation when it isn’t.

Why does it matter if REDD is a failure?

Many countries and companies engaged in carbon market schemes are invested in REDD for forest carbon offset credits. Norway is one of the biggest investors, as part of their International Climate and Forest Initiative, but the US state of California is also engaged in REDD. Despite significant pushback, the California Air Resources Board is still planning to endorse its “Tropical Forest Standard,” which would allow for investment in REDD projects as offsets tied to the state’s carbon market. This is significant because the REDD credits allow California polluters to continue to pollute locally, while investing in forest conservation projects in the global south, often in the Amazon.

(Life) Insurance

As the Amazon fires continue to burn, indigenous communities are brutalized and disenfranchised. Yet the purchasers of REDD carbon credits won’t feel the impact. The mechanism has contingencies and insurance policies to protect against things like leakage (when deforestation is prevented in one place, but occurs in another) and impermanence (things like pest infestation, or… fires). REDD offers indemnity for the financial investment, but not indemnity for the environment. Polluters whose carbon budgets depend on the credits from Amazon REDD projects? They have insurance policies to cover their loss.

Too bad the planet doesn’t have the same.

REDD is dead.


PHOTO Credit: Fires in Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Rondonia, NASA, 13 August 2019.

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  1. Excellent. Thank you for helping to contest the informal ban among so many academics on discussion of these inconvenient truths.