Can REDD+ reduce CO2 emissions from deforestation?

An uncomfortable cosiness: The Oslo REDD+ Exchange by Rob Hardie

REDD+ is an effort (led by the UN’s Environment Programme) to curb the level of carbon emissions caused by deforestation. Grantham Scholar Rob Hardie attended 2016’s REDD+ Exchange in Oslo, and here he offers his personal take on the challenges of turning policy into meaningful change.

An uncomfortable cosiness?

Grantham Scholar Rob Hardie.
Grantham Scholar Rob Hardie.

At the closing plenary session of the 2016 Oslo REDD+ Exchange, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment, Vidar Helgesen, addressed 500 representatives of various governments, intergovernmental organisations, NGOs, indigenous peoples and universities.

Helgesen remarked that this year’s event had appeared relatively ‘cosy and comfortable’.

The aim of this comment was to encourage some of the world’s most influential people in environmental policy to move away from the easy and the familiar in facing the challenges of mitigating climate change fairly and responsibility.

What is REDD+?

The focus of the Exchange, convened by the Norwegian government, was the global policy mechanism of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation).

Led by the United Nations Environment Programme, REDD+ is designed to mitigate the 10-15% of annual CO2 emissions caused by the deforestation and degradation of forest landscapes. It aims to do this by transferring monetary capital from polluting, high income countries to the governments of low to middle income countries, where deforestation and forest degradation is occurring.

Putting a monetary value on the preservation of forest landscapes, it is thought, will make them worth more standing than felled, thereby reducing deforestation and forest degradation, and reducing net global CO2 emissions. Last week’s REDD+ Exchange was a forum where those involved with REDD+ from around the globe could discuss its past and future evolution.

Progress for REDD+’s aims at COP21

REDD+ has evolved significantly since officially becoming a UNEP initiative in 2008.

The programme has gained political traction, now boasting 47 low to middle income countries as partners or in the process of becoming partners. The initiative was bolstered by recognition in the agreement made at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, of the importance of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation through the direction of financial resources.

Strides have been made so that the REDD+ policy architecture now includes the rights of those in developing countries who will be affected by REDD+, through ‘safeguards’ designed to protect the rights of those living in and around the policy’s target forests.

In addition, donor schemes such as the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility or Biocarbon Fund have provided low to middle income countries with ‘readiness’ funding to help them prepare for the initiative. This has led to institutions in partner countries being established at the national level, ready to implement REDD+. These advances signify progression towards an equitable and feasible policy mechanism, and at the REDD+ Exchange in Oslo there was a palpable sense of optimism that the programme is moving closer to implementation.

Problems with money

Full implementation of REDD+, however, is still a prospect rather than a reality, as the initiative is still piloting. There are a number of obstacles that continue to threaten its feasibility.

Firstly, REDD+ is underfunded.

Conceived before the 2008 global financial crisis, it was expected that adequate funding for the scheme could be supplied through mandatory levies on polluters in high income countries. This never happened, and subsequently REDD+ was left to survive on funding from donor sources. While donor funding provides public cash to establish national-level REDD+ institutions in partner countries, the level of funding required to fully implement REDD+ and create genuine incentives to deter deforestation at a local level in all partner countries is far more than the donor schemes can provide.

There is evidence that those in low to middle income countries who live in and around forests, who will be most affected by REDD+, are being given promises of adequate compensation for changes in livelihood practices when there is no guarantee that such compensation will be provided. In this way REDD+ risks antagonising the local people it affects.

Public-private partnerships

The underfunding of REDD+ means it needs to connect with other forms of finance. Two-thirds of the global economy is made up by the private sector, and if REDD+, a public initiative, can connect with private capital through partnerships, there is potential for its funding gap to be filled.

At the REDD+ Exchange, public-private partnerships were consistently touted as the next stage in the evolution of the policy. At the moment, however, REDD+ financing currently only provides payments to governments at the national level, and this jeopardises the potential of public-private partnerships. If payments to support communities as they move away from business-as-usual practices are to be made to national governments when results are achieved, the interests of other partners will be undermined, making REDD+ a risky partner. Currently there is no clear model or framework of procedure to address this problem. Throughout the Exchange in Oslo, there were numerous calls for increased connectivity between REDD+ and the private sector, but these consistently fell short of illuminating exactly how this could be achieved.

Local governments cannot shoulder the burden

A further complication was presented at the Oslo Exchange by Amy Duchelle from the Center for International Forestry Research.

When REDD+ financing only provides payments to national governments, local governance institutions in REDD+ pilot countries often find themselves under-resourced and over-burdened with the combined technocratic and social policing tasks of implementing the initiative. In contexts where taxation revenue is low, governments are generally already under-resourced. Requiring local governments to shoulder extra responsibilities of REDD+ without guaranteeing funding to do so has jeopardised their ability to implement REDD+ pilot schemes effectively and fairly. Again, these oversights risk antagonising those most affected by REDD+.

The under-resourcing of local governments is compounded when the policy they are expected to implement doesn’t fit with reality in the local context, and local governments are expected to mediate the effects.


A good example is found within UN policy discourse: the notion of ‘communities’ as homogenous entities. In reality, these communities are made up of varied and diverse power dynamics and inequalities.

If REDD+ policy falsely imagines local demographics, and leaves under-resourced local governments to fill in the gaps, errors in benefit distribution are likely to occur, and have been evident in studies of pilot schemes. Misrepresentation of local people has also contributed to a gender gap surrounding REDD+, where women consistently engage less with the programme than men at all stages of policy formation and implementation. Neglecting to engage a large proportion of those who are affected by REDD+ and their potential to contribute to its effective and fair implementation will undoubtedly undermine the initiative.

What next for REDD+?

Looking forward, these structural failures could antagonise those living in and around forests, whose lives will be most affected by REDD+, thereby alienating many people who could contribute to innovatively progressing the initiative.

Furthermore, constant calls for the REDD+ funding gap to be filled still leave big questions unanswered. At the REDD+ Exchange there was limited discussion of these uncomfortable obstructions, which perhaps contributed to the comfortable and cosy atmosphere.

In order to address the structural failures of REDD, uncomfortable issues need to be at the centre of discussion until they are resolved, and those affected by REDD+ need to be fairly represented at all levels of discussion and policy formation. This might cause even further discomfort to some, but it is exactly the type of discomfort needed to drive the necessary innovation that can make global policy mechanisms like REDD+ work.

Edited by Claire Moran. Image by Photo by Kelly L from Pexels.