By Chris Lang
A recent issue of the Journal of Political Ecology includes a Special Section focussing on REDD+. The Special Section is edited by Adeniyi Asiyanbi (Department of Geography, University of Calgary, Canada) and Jens Friis Lund (Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen, Denmark).
In their paper, “Policy persistence: REDD+ between stabilization and contestation”, Asiyanbi and Lund write that,
In this Special Section we focus on REDD+, which for long has enjoyed remarkable global support in spite of poor outcomes and widespread criticisms. The central policy proposition of REDD+, that is, forest-based emissions reduction through market-based instruments and non-market means, are now carried forth under the new banner of Natural Climate Solutions. We examine REDD+ to understand how and why some environmental policies and ideas persist despite dubious impacts.
Criticisms, contestations, and resistance to REDD+
Asiyanbi and Lund write that since REDD+ emerged in 2005, more than US$10 billion has been poured into REDD+ programmes and projects. REDD+ was “bolstered by significant global policy support and championed as an all-win scheme which could reduce carbon emissions while delivering a range of co-benefits including biodiversity protection, improved local livelihoods, improved forest governance, and investments in a green development pathway”, they write.
Asiyanbi and Lund note that realities on the ground are in stark contrast to the promises of REDD+. Global deforestation continues, and that is unlikely to change in the near future. Better forest governance, green development finance, and improved biodiversity have failed to materialise. Instead, REDD projects have resulted in conflict, rights abuses, and new or worsened forms of marginalisation. Increasingly, REDD+ processes are contested by indigenous peoples and local communities.
They write that,
REDD+ has faced relentless resistance at national and international levels, including protest marches at international events, critical commentary, witnesses challenging national policy processes, and internationally-mobilized protest letters to major institutions including the World Bank’s FCPF, the Green Climate Fund, and California’s Tropical Forest Standard.
Why is REDD not dead?
Nevertheless, REDD+ persists, with the support of REDD+ proponents at the UNFCCC, finance institutions, think tanks, conservation NGOs, and development agencies. A new series of forest-based carbon initiatives has emerged, including from the aviation industry, global commodity supply chains, and oil corporations.
Asiyanbi and Lund define policy persistence as “the continued economic and political support to a policy in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is failing to achieve its stated objectives”.
“At this point,” they write,
the reinvention of forest-based climate change mitigation as part of Natural Climate Solutions, and the fresh optimisms sparked by new powerful interests, new technologies and novel articulations appear to breathe new life into the concept of REDD+ – promising of further persistence. However, these new promises are also met with a growing chorus of critical voices, contestations, and outright resistance.
REDD+: Development as usual
Asiyanbi and Lund note that REDD+ is embedded within the international development industry. The idea of REDD+ has morphed from being funded by a global carbon market to “development as usual”. Development banks (especially the World Bank), bilateral donors (especially Norway, Germany, and the UK), development consultants, and NGOs (especially The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and WWF) have played a large role in the rollout of REDD+.
Development professionals are well paid, regardless of whether the project they are advising on is a success or a failure. Forest-dependent communities take the livelihood and financial risks of project failure, or success. Asiyanbi and Lund write that,
If REDD+ persists because it serves particular interests within the development industry, then important questions need to be asked about how REDD+ funding and other resources continue to reinforce and bolster the powers of multilateral banks and international NGOs.
REDD+: The carbon market mirage
REDD+ is a market-based scheme that aligns with the dominant neo-liberal approach to environmental governance. REDD+ helps expand the frontiers of neoliberal capitalism by enabling, rather than preventing, further extractivism and forest intensive investments. In fact, Norway’s oil industry was behind REDD right from the start.
Asiyanbi and Lund note that governments in the global North and corporate interests promote carbon offsetting in order to legitimise the continued expansion of production, consumption, and capital accumulation. “Norway’s commitment to REDD+ . . . legitimises its continued fossil fuel production,” they write.
REDD+ donor funds increasingly promote private control of REDD+ projects. The World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility “has also expressed clear preference for REDD+ countries with a significant private sector engagement or potential for private investment, citing ‘private sector engagement’ as one of its key strategic foci,” Asiyanbi and Lund write.
In the context of the global political economy, then, REDD+ indeed looks more and more like a global-scale socio-ecological fix for a capitalist system in crisis. The ‘fix’ presented by REDD+ is constituted at the discursive level, seeking to deflect and delay actions to phase out fossil fuel production and use.
REDD+: Additional, verified and permanent?
Asiyandbi and Lund point out that the proof that additional carbon has been sequestered as a result of a REDD+ intervention depends on the setting of a baseline. But no clear criteria exist to determine whether a baseline, and its counterfactual storyline, is ‘correct’ or not.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of Larry Lohmann’s argument that counterfactual baselines are the problem here, not “bad baselines”:
Asiyanbi and Lund also explain the problem of leakage, which “confounds the apparent precision of quantified emissions reductions”:
In practice, most interventions assess leakage in designated areas close to the project intervention site. However, in our own work, we have found that traders in timber and forest products shift their areas of supply hundreds of kilometers in response to forest conservation initiatives. Similarly, research has shown that international capital moves in response to forest policy changes. Thus, leakage respects neither project nor national boundaries. If baselines can be set at will and leakage cannot be practically controlled or assessed, then the notion of additionality appears to vanish as a logical assertion.
They note that attempts to sidestep the problem of leakage by selectively emphasising specific scales of REDD+ (project, jurisdiction, landscape, nested, etc.) “has not done away with this problem”.
REDD+ and Natural Climate Solutions
Asiyanbi and Lund note that “old promises around forest-based climate action are being rehashed with new panache”.
They write that,
Natural Climate Solutions have become a new rallying point for global actors. The promise of global carbon removal under this new label has received lots of attention among major conservation NGOs, in the media, and by business interests. Indeed, a new coalition called Nature4Climate realigns old proponents of forest-based climate action including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, UN-REDD, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and other conservation NGOs – to push for the mobilization of financial capital by developing a business case for investments in Natural Climate Solutions. Oil majors also populate these renewed spaces for forest-based climate action including the Norwegian oil company Equinor, and Italian oil major, Eni.
The authors conclude with the hope that the collection of papers in the Special Section of the Journal of Political Ecology will “stimulate debates around REDD+ and the wider mobilization of forests in climate action”. Such a debate is as timely as ever, they argue, as redundant and pernicious climate and environmental policies persist:
Significant hopes for addressing climate change across both the regulatory UNFCCC landscape and the vast arena of voluntary climate action currently rest on so-called Natural Climate Solutions that embody many of the same characteristics that made REDD+ persist, despite failing spectacularly. Thus, the race to avert catastrophic impacts of climate change rests on shaky ground indeed. And the longer these ostensibly common-sense climate solutions are allowed to persist, the less likely it is that more effective solutions can be mobilized in time and at scale.
PHOTO Credit: Oil palm plantation in Malaysia, Food & Environment Reporting Network.