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Developing Deforestation: The REDD Initiative

Publié le 1 septembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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The Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries (REDD) is being touted by industrialized nations as a way to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 25 percent within the span of the next decade, with the added benefits of forest conservation and capacity building in the developing world. Among the serious obstacles and questions facing this proposition is the social and political desirability of REDD for the developing host countries. This article explores the context of REDD and the outlook for this initiative within future climate change negotiations.

Rings of fire
Seth Anderson, Rings of fire, 2005
Certains droits réservés.

Although theories about climate change date back to the mid-1980s (1), the push for political action on this issue has never been stronger than it is today. Even George W. Bush jumped on the climate change bandwagon at the 2007 G8 summit in Germany, announcing that the United States would participate in post-Kyoto Protocol agreements. REDD, the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries, is an initiative up for consideration in those future negotiations. There is much to recommend this initiative at a global level, both economically and ecologically. However, its potential benefits for the developing countries that choose to participate are far less clear, particularly in its effects on the local communities variously linked to the forest for their livelihoods.In taking climate change more seriously, international policy makers face some daunting challenges: notably, how to reduce carbon output without compromising economic growth. To address this concern, the British Government commissioned Sir Nicolas Stern, the World Bank’s former chief economist, to calculate the costs of global climate change in July 2005. His conclusions, compiled in The Stern Review, report that one percent of annual global GDP needs to be invested in strategies that mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Failure to do so may result in a twenty percent drop in the expected global GDP (2).

Few people may realize that tropical deforestation is responsible for between 20 to 25 percent of total annual greenhouse gas emissions (3). Globally, deforestation results in the annual loss of 13 million hectares of forest, an area roughly equivalent to the three Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI combined (4). To combat greenhouse gas emissions Stern recommends the reduction of the current rate of tropical deforestation by 50% within the next decade. However, the Kyoto Protocol, the UN’s current legal framework for addressing climate change, does not provide any mechanism of compensation for those who reduce greenhouse gas emissions by preventing deforestation.

Basics of Deforestation

Despite The Stern Review’s economic assessment of climate change, it fails to consider the social complexities of deforestation and its causes. The expansion of the agricultural frontier is the major cause of tropical deforestation and the reasons for this expansion vary both within and between countries, depending on different political, social, economic, cultural and environmental factors (5). Tropical deforestation occurs almost entirely within developing countries (6) and, contrary to popular belief, multinational logging companies are not the only culprits. Most deforestation occurs as the result of the landless rural-poor (7). Faced with few other economic options, they clear forested land for small-scale subsistence agriculture. Deforestation needs to be curbed, not only to reduce the alarming rate of carbon emissions it has caused, but also to defend the local and indigenous communities who look to the forests for their livelihoods (8). Moreover, forests are essential to watershed protection, the conservation of biodiversity, and carbon sequestration.

The question becomes: how best to protect them?


The Kyoto Protocol (KP) introduced binding GHG emissions reduction targets at an average of five percent below 1990 emission levels for industrialized countries (9). From the economic perspective of these countries, and as GHG emissions affect the global climate regardless of the geographic source of emission, the most affordable mitigatory actions should be taken wherever they are located. Fearing that industrialized countries would seek to fulfill their emissions reduction targets by buying carbon credits elsewhere, initiatives such as REDD were not included in the KP. Instead the KP was setup to encourage industrialized countries to reduce emissions domestically (10).

There are countless strategies to reduce emissions, such as switching from coal to solar generated power, planting trees, and so on. Nevertheless, there is a risk to any given emissions reduction strategy. A tree plantation, for example, embodies more risk than a switch from coal to solar as the forest may burn down, be logged, or fail to grow at the expected rates. Each country, therefore, adopts their chosen emissions reduction strategies based on the amount of risk that they are willing to assume.

In order for a mitigatory strategy to be implemented internationally, for instance, one that reduces emissions by curbing deforestation, the strategy needs to be approved by the governing body for climate change, or the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). One of the roles of the UNFCCC is to weigh the risks and rewards of these various strategies. In other words, balancing climate change mitigation strategies is a bit like building a retirement fund: a solidly built, well-managed and diversified portfolio can limit risks and maximize gains. In this context, how does REDD work, who does it benefit, and what are some of the barriers to its implementation?

What is REDD?

On December 7, 2005 at the 11th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC in Montreal, Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, representing the fledgling Coalition of Rainforest Nations, presented their submission entitled “Reducing Emissions From Deforestation in Developing Countries” or REDD (11). This strategy would reward the conservation of forests – and the consequent reduction of carbon emissions from deforestation – through internationally recognized carbon credits. Developing countries could then sell these credits on an international carbon credit exchange to their industrialized counterparts attempting to meet their KP targets. REDD carbon credits will likely be attractive to industrialized countries as they are expected to cost less than half the price of other types of carbon credits.

The REDD program would award carbon credits to a country capable of bringing its deforestation activities to a level lower than a carefully established baseline. This baseline would be defined separately for each country through an averaged historical national deforestation rate (12). Additionally, changes in forest cover would be tracked using remote sensing techniques, such as satellite imaging (13). To ensure forests are conserved even after the award and exchange of carbon credits, there would be a built-in carbon backing mechanism that credits early forest conservation and debits any subsequent lapses. Participating countries would therefore be encouraged to make a continued effort to stabilize and reduce GHG emissions by maintaining their forests in perpetuity. These host countries would nonetheless retain full control over their participation in such a scheme, as the implementation would be done on a national basis. National measures for implementing REDD would include a wide range of efforts from “command-and-control” approaches to market-based incentives, as well as methods ranging from “the strict enforcement of land-use regulations to sophisticated schemes of payment for environmental services(14).”

Depending on the opportunity cost of the land, reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries could be a cost-effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and has the potential to offer significant reductions quickly (15). However, as mentioned above, REDD has not yet been approved by the UNFCCC. Additionally, there is not yet an agreed upon methodology for quantifying avoided deforestation (16). For these reasons, it was felt that REDD, as first presented in Marrakech six years ago, would not be effective at reducing global GHG emissions (17).

However, since the Marrakech accords, much has changed. Mapping techniques that allow for the accurate monitoring of change in the global forest cover are now available (18). Moreover, it is now easier to establish the infrastructure required to properly quantify the carbon emissions from deforestation. Nevertheless, at the national level, the clearing of any remaining obstacles will require political will, the strength of which varies wildly from country to country.

At the international level, the technical and organisational advances mentioned above and the growing awareness of the global problem of deforestation are forcing climate change policy-makers to revisit REDD. There is an increasing flurry of international meetings, consultations, conferences, and workshops to determine where, if, and how REDD could best be applied. The sentiment among delegates to the UNFCCC, seems to be that REDD will be included in the next commitment period, after 2012 when the Kyoto Protocol expires (19). As recently as May 2007, the EU announced that REDD would play an integral role in meeting its future emissions reduction targets of more than 20 percent below the 1990 levels by 2020 (20). Details of how this strategy would be implemented have not yet been disclosed.

REDD has the potential to reduce global emissions while providing vast synergistic benefits by linking environmental protection to emissions reduction in the developing world. However, there are serious political, social and economic hurdles that need to be overcome before REDD can be successfully implemented.

REDD: Post-Kyoto or the Future

REDD is only a theoretical model at this point; there have yet to be any published scientific reports or completed pilot projects testing its benefits for both industrialized and developing host countries. However, there is work underway to determine its feasibility. In fact, the World Bank has recently announced the creation of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, through which it hopes to develop five small scale test plots to determine how REDD would work in practice.

The development of detailed economic models may help convince host countries to participate. Political support in countries with the highest rate of deforestation is scarce, as REDD runs counter to the development goals of nations that see the forests as potential lumber, soybean farms or vast cattle ranches. Even with the support of technological advances in forest monitoring and increased political will, for REDD to be successful there needs to be an accompanying political and social support for the initiative within the host countries. Good governance and intra-governmental cooperation could also lead to national and international policies in support of initiatives like REDD. However, it will only work if the host countries and their industrialized counterparts can engage in a carbon credits exchange as equally powerful partners. It is only under these conditions that REDD could be environmentally, economically and internationally beneficial.

REDD is a mechanism that would allow industrialized countries to reduce their emissions by purchasing carbon credits in the developing world. The concrete impact of sequestering lands for forests over agricultural production and other uses must be taken into consideration. The various groups working together for REDD will need to coordinate their differing goals and agendas for the shared objective of reducing GHG emissions. If REDD is carefully implemented, it could lead to important steps toward the goal of “saving the rainforest”, as well as equalizing the global distribution of wealth. Large north-south transfer payments for carbon credits could potentially bring about positive economic and political change in developing countries. This would represent progress not only for the developing world but also in the very nature of relations between developed and developing countries. However, if such potential is to be successfully realized – alongside cost-effective emissions reduction – the implementation of REDD must involve a more thorough consideration of its effects in the specific political and cultural contexts within which it will be implemented.


(1) For example, both the world meteorological organization and UNEP were founded in 1988.
(2) Stern, N. The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
(3) See the State of the World’s Forests 2007Report by the Food and Agriculture Organization [online] <http://www.fao.org/forestry/site/sofo/en/> 19 August 2007.
(4) Silva-Chávez, G. A. « Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from tropical deforestation by applying compensated reduction to Bolivia. » Tropical Deforestation and Climate Change. Eds. P. Mountinho and S. Schwartzman. IPAM, Instituto de Perquisa Ambiental de Amazônia, Belém, Pará, (Brazil); Environmental Defense, Washington DC (USA): 2005. 73-86.
(5) See the brief description of the complex causes of deforestation, [online] <http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Library/Deforestation/deforestation_update3.html> 7 August 2007.
(6) French Guyana is a notable exception. France still considers the French Guyanese forests part of its territories, and therefore part of a “developed” nation.
(7) Ca´mara-Cabrales, L. « Small Farmer Migration and the Agroforestry Alternative in the Panama Canal Watershed. » Journal of Sustainable Forestry. 8.3-4 (1999): 11.
(8) The local and indigenous peoples of tropical forests are often deeply invested in the conservation of their forests and ecosystem. They are distinct from the landless poor, who have often followed new logging and communication roads into the forests to settle and farm seemingly “unclaimed” lands. See note (3) and [online] <http://www.un.org/esa/forests/index.html> 7 August 2007.
(9) These targets are to be met during KP’s first commitment period from 2008-2012. The prescriptions of the targets follow climate equity and justice principles of common but differentiated responsibilities, by which the historical polluters, industrialized or “developed” nations, initiate emissions reductions. Although developing countries have made a general commitment to reduce their emissions during the first commitment period, these reductions have not been quantified nor are they binding. Meeting KP commitments will be costly, however, as argued by The Stern Review, the costs should be manageable.
(10) Fearnside, P. M. « Environmentalists split over Kyoto and Amazonian deforestation. » Environmental Conservation. 28.4 (2001): 295-299.
(11) Submission by the governments of Bolivia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Papua New Guinea, supported by the Central African Republic, the Dominican Republic and the Solomon Islands. The full title of the submission was “Reducing Emissions From Deforestation in Developing Countries: Approaches to Stimulate Action.”
(12) See the submission of the Governments of Papua new guinea and Costa Rica to the UNFCCC for average historical baseline mechanism [online] <http://rainforestcoalition.org/documents/COP-11Misc01-AgendaItem6.pdf>
(13) A short summary describing NASA Tropical Deforestation Research and satellite mapping techniques used to document and track forests, [online] <http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Library/Deforestation/deforestation_update4.html> 7 August 2007.
(14) Yamin, F. and J. Depledge. The International Climate Change Regime: A Guide to Rules, Institutions and Procedures. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
(15) Stern, N. The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
(16) Ebeling, J. « Tropical deforestation and climate change: Towards an international mitigation strategy. » M.Sc. Environmental Change and Management, Oxford U., 2006, 85.
(17) Marrakech conference was a UNFCCC conference held in 2001 to discuss emissions mitigation in industrialized countries. For more on the Marrakech Accords, [online] <http://www.abanet.org/environ/committees/climatechange/newsletter/jan02/goldberg.html> 7 August 2007.
(18) Although the development of new methods to track global forests has advanced, greater technological improvements are needed. These developments should go hand in hand with the creation of more detailed assessments of global forest carbon stocks, showing the exact tonnage per unit area around the globe.
(19) Metzger, A. R. and J.-A. Vinois. « The EU’s climate change and energy strategy: Limiting global climate change to 2°C. » Sessions of the Subsidiary Bodies Scientific and Technological Advice. Bonn, Germany: European Community, 2007.
(20) Author’s conversations with various climate change experts.

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