Can We Save the World’s Remaining Forests? A Look at ‘Why REDD Will Fail’

By Bethany N. Bella

As climate change threatens the stability of ecosystems around the world, the preservation of forests is seen as a “win-win” solution to curbing planet-warming emissions while producing value for developing country economies.

But all is not as it seems with the world’s largest forest preservation effort, the United Nations-led Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries program, otherwise known as REDD, according to a new book.

In the somewhat-dramatically titled, Why REDD Will Fail, Jessica L. DeShazo, Chandra Lal Pandey, and Zachary A. Smith examine the roots of the program, explore its internal processes, and ultimately predict its demise unless significant changes are made. At the core of their critique is what they see as a disconnect between the underlying causes of climate change and what REDD actually addresses. “Unless our consumption patterns are changed,” they write, “REDD can achieve very little” (p. 115).

(Note: While there is discussion on the evolution of the entire REDD regime, including the addition of REDD+ considerations, DeShazo et al. do not distinguish between REDD and REDD+ throughout the majority of their critique. Perhaps the distinction is relatively minor from the authors’ perspective, considering their critiques.)

What’s in a Forest?

In theory the REDD model is simple. In exchange for setting aside areas of forest for conservation, developing countries are able to access international financing through mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund. Developing countries receive a benefit from their natural resources while the international community protects key biodiversity hotspots, keeps more carbon in the ground (deforestation is among the leading contributors to global emissions), and preserves vast areas of the “Earth’s lungs,” which take in carbon dioxide and convert it to oxygen.

In order for the system to work, there needs to be near-universal definitions of terms as well as national monitoring systems that can keep track of preserved emissions and ensure areas remain untouched.

One of the many underlying problems of the REDD regime, according to DeShazo et al., is a lack of international consensus on what makes a “forest” different from the likes of a tree plantation.

A percentage of crown cover or canopy cover is a go-to parameter for differentiating a forest from a plantation, but different countries abide by different definitions. Armenia classifies a forest as “tree crowns covering at least 30 percent of the area,” while the Netherlands requires a canopy cover of at least 20 percent. Other countries, like Bangladesh and Cambodia, categorize different types of forests with different descriptive language (e.g. hill forest vs. natural mangrove), while some countries like Belize don’t yet have working definitions.

What counts as “forest degradation” – the first “D” in the REDD acronym – is even more unclear.

The lack of consensus on two of the primary components of REDD after nearly eight years of program development is disconcerting, especially for donors concerned about the value of their dollar.

About Those Emissions

DeShazo et al. also question whether REDD is truly making a difference in reducing emissions in the long term.

“Before scientific management, forests were assumed to be limitless in terms of timber, and countries did not focus on preserving them,” they write (p. 15). It might be assumed that this “unlimited yield” mentality has been replaced now that we have a better understanding of global forests stocks, but they suggest this is not the case.

The major drivers of deforestation, including agriculture, logging, infrastructure development, cattle ranching, human settlement, and commercial livestock production, aren’t relenting. In fact, there’s increasing pressure related to these factors in some parts of the world, particularly in many high priority REDD countries, where food security is more important in the short term than forest conservation. As long as REDD does little to stop the growth of plantations in particular, the authors write, it will not achieve its primary objectives.

The problem is one of “leakage,” they say. REDD proposals may estimate hundreds of millions of tons of carbon emissions saved and thousands of hectares of forest spared, but these activities can simply shift elsewhere, creating no net change or even covering up an increase in activity as plantations replace more and more natural forest.

Unequal Exchange

The natural risk aversion of third party donors, whom REDD is relying on for funding, may also keep it from making a significant difference in the most high-impact areas.

The authors point to the paucity of “clean development projects” in sub-Saharan Africa under the Kyoto Protocol, a similar mechanism to provide payment for ecosystem services. In 2011, a meager 2.6 percent of all clean development projects were located in Africa, and three quarters of those were in South Africa, where infrastructure and institutional capacity are much stronger. This experience suggests areas where forest conservation is most critical – often where institutional capacity is lowest – may also see little attention from REDD donors.

DeShazo et al. even go so far to say that because carbon, in the form of trees, “is being commodified as a way to make profits and solve an international environmental problem…such commodification is leading to another form of colonialism” (p. 16).

The driving market forces of capitalism have created a “constant state of dependence by exploiting the natural resources and cheap labor found in some countries,” often associated with what’s called “unequal ecological exchange,” they write (p. 76). Certain environmental harms associated with natural resource extraction, agricultural goods, and waste disposal are passed down to developing countries because of the goods and services they provide. The REDD regime is just another way of doing this, the authors argue, except this time developing countries are serving as carbon sinks.

Land and Power

As colonialism led to some of the bloodiest chapters in human history, DeShazo et al. critique REDD for its conflict potential as well.

Many countries creating REDD projects have tumultuous land histories, with poorly defined rights or government ownership of land, and track records of violence, “especially for indigenous peoples and other forest-dwelling communities” (p. 69).

“Usually the government has some form of ownership over the land, while the people using the land have usufructuary rights, which means they have the right to access and use the land and its resources but do not have a title to it or to profits derived from it” (p. 69).

In these circumstances, without adequate protections, REDD can displace local forest users or introduce constraints on their activities without their input. “The people who are most familiar with the forest do not make the final decisions” (p. 112). The resulting clashes between government or other land owners and the people who actually live in area have led to many conflicts throughout history, some violent.

The Wilson Center’s 2013 Backdraft report acknowledged the conflict potential of REDD efforts around indigenous communities in particular and noted that “unless measures to ensure the transparent and fair distribution of related benefits are outlined ahead of time, REDD projects could potentially create new rifts.”

“Noble,” But Futile?

At the time of the book’s publication in 2016, the majority of REDD funding streams were being used on country “readiness” activities – the preparation part of the REDD application process. In the seven years since the programs creation, no country has fully implemented a REDD project, according to the authors. The delay and lack of impact to date is yet another reason they see the initiative as “noble” but doomed (p. 2).

“To meet the rising demand for forest supplies, forests are being cut down rapidly, and as one region of forest is consumed, the corporations keep moving on to other regions,” the authors contend (p. 89). Because REDD does not affect the drivers of deforestation, it represents a Band-Aid-like approach that merely pushes bad actors into new regions rather than stopping the activity altogether.

Although DeShazo et al. call REDD’s potential “slight in the long term” (p. 115), they offer suggestions for how to increase impact in the short term. They urge more incorporation of community feedback in the planning phase, especially from indigenous peoples who sometimes have been displaced or lied to in the past. They also call for more investment and oversight into measurement, reporting, and verification to lower overall program costs and reduce leakage, and they recommend “greatly increased” compensation to balance out other market forces for forest land use (e.g. palm oil plantations) (p. 115-116).

But ultimately, the book concludes, “knowingly or not, the system as it exists allows for many abuses and will not get us where we need to go.”

This story also appears on New Security Beat