Debating REDD

Climate Change Mitigation Measures

Carbon emissions, a result of industrial-scale human activity, are causing climate change. Efforts to drastically reduce the emission of global greenhouse gasses must be central to our collective strategies to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

With national governments politically stalled at reaching any binding agreement for sweeping measures to stop climate change in its tracks, the United Nations climate mechanism (UNFCCC) began to discuss stop-gap measures aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change and, to the extent possible, preparing to adapt to some of its predictable consequences.

Tropical countries play a major role in this scenario for a variety of reasons. Heat and moisture created by tropical ecosystems like the Amazon basin generate and drive much of the planet's weather patterns and help stabilize the climate. Deforestation worldwide accounts for between 18 and 20 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as CO2 from dying trees is released into the atmosphere. This is a dangerous double blow for the climate because living forests also absorb CO2 – so deforestation and forest degradation puts more CO2 into the atmosphere while simultaneously reducing the forest 'sink' capacity to absorb it.

Because tropical countries have high forest cover yet growing deforestation rates, and have also been deemed as countries more vulnerable to climate change impacts, several tropical country governments formed a coalition in 2005 to devise a mechanism to reduce CO2 emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Led by Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea, REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) is the leading proposed solution for tackling deforestation in hopes of saving the climate. However, this 'solution' is proving to be just as controversial as other mega projects and resource extraction proposals slated for the Amazon.

What is REDD?

The fundamental concept behind REDD is straight-forward enough: devise financial incentives that reward countries and communities for keeping forests standing, as opposed to cutting them down. REDD is, in theory, based on a recognition of the important environmental services that forest nations – located primarily in the global south – provide to the world.

At the deeply disappointing climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, REDD emerged as a rare point of consensus between wealthier and poorer countries. Industrialized countries see REDD as an inexpensive way to channel carbon "offsets" in which they meet emissions reductions targets by financing reductions in other countries. Developing countries, in particular ones with tropical forests, see REDD as a new stream of financial support. Other powerful entities, like the World Bank, multi-national corporations, and large-scale conservation organizations have backed the proposal for different reasons, not the least being their own institutional benefit.

The devil, however, is in the details. Fundamental questions about how REDD would be implemented (Where does the money come from? How is it channeled? How is it used to save forests? Who benefits? Who loses?), have not been answered. The responses to these and other questions have huge implications and will determine whether REDD can really work or is destined for failure from the outset. REDD has in fact emerged as a concept nearly as controversial as the drivers of deforestation – logging, expanding agriculture, oil and gas projects, mega-dams – that it is designed to counteract.

Amazon Watch shares many of the serious concerns and critiques of REDD that have emerged. These include:

  1. Potential threat to Indigenous rights
    Most of the planet's remaining forests are home to Indigenous peoples who have conserved those forests for millennia. As with previous development projects, however, REDD is being imposed from outside with little regard to the rights of Indigenous communities, including free, prior, and informed consent for such policies. We are concerned that REDD could be like injecting steroids into the conservation projects that have displaced an estimated 130 million people worldwide. Indigenous rights, including land tenure, must be guaranteed prior to implementation of REDD policies and projects. Current language on REDD does not adequately guarantee these rights.
  2. "Get Out of Jail Free" card
    A series of other concerns, including offsets as a carbon "Get Out of Jail Free" card for polluting countries, allowing them an easy way out of reducing their own emissions; providing "perverse incentives" (like including industrial tree plantations within the definition of "forest") which could actually encourage further deforestation of virgin rainforest; and questionable science behind the actual long-term reductions in carbon emissions of these measures (e.g. forests saved today could go up in smoke in the future).

What's the status of REDD?

The REDD mechanism appears to be the only significant measure advancing both inside and outside the UNFCCC process. Initial financing was approved in the Copenhagen Accord at the COP 15 in December 2009, and a new extra-official process dubbed "Oslo-Paris" which pulls together northern European countries seeking to pool some $6 billion for project financing. The next COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico, is expected to be one of the last hurdles for REDD, and if specifics aspects of the mechanism are approved, it would pave the way for the release of funds to jump start the program. But the stage is already being set in many Amazonian countries – and not without controversy.

Throughout the Amazon, countries have been working on national strategies for REDD implementation for some time. To date, this has mostly meant developing and implementing pilot project and national legislation, yet many Indigenous groups are just beginning to understand what REDD, even though it will likely involve their territories. Nonetheless, REDD pilot projects are underway in several Amazonian countries and all are raising concerns from Indigenous organizations and civil society.

In Bolivia, the Noel Kempff project began in 1996 as a collaboration among US NGOs, US energy companies, and local communities as one of the first projects aimed at avoiding deforestation. However, the project has been widely criticized as true emissions cuts and claims of community benefits appear to have been largely exaggerated.

In Ecuador, a government-run program called Socio Bosque has been in place since 2007, which offers Indigenous communities per hectare payments for maintaining their forests. Funded domestically, Socio Bosque has been shopped by the government internationally as a REDD pilot project and it forms the centerpiece of the country's national REDD development strategy. The program is raising concern however that the contracts may violate important Indigenous rights, including that they were signed without proper consultation with communities.

Access to balanced information about Socio Bosque and REDD has proved challenging and contentious. To date, most information that has trickled down to Indigenous groups in the Amazon has been short on a real risk assessment of REDD for Indigenous rights and long term implications for their territories. Most capacity building training among Indigenous groups in the Amazon has been conducted by northern NGOs with a pro-REDD position, some of whom are funded by northern countries seeking potential offsets when and if REDD becomes reality, raising questions about objectivity, accusations of a quid pro-quo, and conflicts of interest.

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