As COP26 underlined again, we must stop deforestation to slow climate change. To meet the target of limiting temperature rise to 1.5° C, emissions from deforestation must decrease by between 70-90% by 2030. A coalition of the willing at COP pledged to do so by 2030 by stopping all deforestation. To get there will take concerted and cooperative action by all stakeholders – governments, the private sector, NGOs, donors, and, most of all, those that live in and off the forests. But who should do what, when, where, and how?
Can rich countries in the Global North tell poor countries in the Global South to not cut down their forests because they are needed as carbon sinks to slow climate change? Not without some form of compensation since the greenhouse gases that drive climate change continue to be emitted largely by those global North countries. Developing countries need economic growth and have a right to use their resources, just like advanced economies did centuries ago.
Fortunately, the willingness to do something about climate change and preserve forests is growing, especially those most under threat in tropical regions such as the Amazon and Congo Basin. In the early days, this was mostly done by NGOs and donor countries through local projects or funding national or global initiatives. Those that created the problem – rich country corporations – were off the hook. No longer. Whether through public pressure or because they realize that following sound environmental, social, and governance standards makes business sense, corporations are coming on board, setting climate targets, and funding international initiatives.
The United Nations, the world’s forum for climate action, provided a mechanism in 2008 for businesses to use: REDD+ – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (the + adds conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks). It works by giving financial value to verified emission reductions (VERs) from avoided deforestation. Its guiding principles address not just climate needs, but also biodiversity, livelihoods, rights of Indigenous peoples, and effective funding.
Global public-sector conservation programs such as this are invaluable, especially when they can harness the finances and dynamism of the private sector, which REDD+ now does. Those that cut down forests, either commercial or subsistence needs, do so for economic reasons. This means we need economic alternatives to stop it.
This is increasingly happening under the voluntary REDD+ mechanism whereby corporations provide results-based payments through buying Verified Emission Reductions (VERs)–aka carbon credits–from communities that protect forests. This is in addition to–not instead of–cutting emissions in their corporate value chains that they are or should be, committing to. By using market-based incentives and assuring local buy-in, the REDD+ mechanism is working at dozens of conservation projects worldwide. With a huge pool of potential funders, REDD+ can be scaled more easily and sustainably than initiatives that depend on public-sector or donor funds. Moreover, it is a relatively simple model that can be replicated wherever deforestation is occurring. By addressing local community needs, REDD+ has a significant economic multiplier effect.
As important as local communities are for the success of stopping deforestation using the REDD+ project model, they can be powerless over governments’ control of public lands. Outsiders starting or financing projects may face similar problems. Ideally, projects should be integrated into realistic, well-structured national REDD+ programs supported by government entities that favor land tenure and Indigenous rights. But “ideally” means just that – few countries, especially those with tropical forests, can meet these criteria. Face it, the forests most under threat are not in Scandinavia, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Singapore (the top finishers in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index).
Such questions have bedeviled donor countries for decades and have led some to bypass national governments with their development aid. REDD+ is no different. To date, there is a lack of success in national or jurisdictional REDD+ programs that are successfully reducing national emissions. Community-led or regionally run projects with a bottom-up approach have been more successful since they enjoy direct input from those concerned by and causing deforestation and benefiting from REDD+ results-based payments. UN-REDD recognized this in its constitutive documents, calling for strengthening local democracy as a safeguard against elite capture of REDD+ benefits.
The urgency of slowing climate change and deforestation is too great. Moreover, we don’t have to choose between national/public and private/local REDD+ implementation. As in so many other conservation efforts, we must use all the tools at our disposal and adapt to different circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, as far as forest conservation goes, REDD+ is a one-size-fits-most approach whether nationally, regionally, or locally or funded by public or private sector money
As REDD+ matures further, it will become easier to leverage both jurisdictional-government and project-based approaches while avoiding the weaknesses of each. Governments are best placed to create the enabling environments and incentives on the ground for forest protection and to attract public-sector funding. Private developers are more effective at delivering services to local communities and addressing local drivers of deforestation, as well as attracting private-sector funding from corporations that want a partner with a business model they can understand.
One of the main problems with REDD+ seems to be that it has become entangled in a debate between advocates for government-run programs and those who favor voluntary programs with private-sector funding. Rather than looking for common ground, some advocacy NGOs and activists start with the premise that anything to do with the private-sector is bad and seek to find proof. And through social media, where everyone is an expert, their voices can be amplified far beyond what their experience and depth of research might merit. This is unfair for the very people they claim they want to help: forest communities. If they scare off corporations from buying carbon credits, they are not just depriving forest communities of the funding needed for more sustainable livelihoods, but probably limiting their best chance to escape poverty.
I recently had a chance to find out for myself if REDD+ can work, visiting two projects run by Wildlife Works, a private conservation company: the Kasigau Corridor Project in Kenya, which was the first REDD+ project to be verified by the two main REDD+ standards (the Verified Carbon Standard and the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard) in 2011, and the Mai Ndombe REDD+ Project in Mai Ndombe province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which started the same year.
What impressed me was not just the slowing down of deforestation, which has been verified by independent auditors under the VERRA standard – the main global standard that certifies voluntary carbon market emission reductions, but the positive socio-economic effects of the funds flowing into these extremely impoverished regions. In the Kasigau Corridor area, wherever you turn there are community projects, from schools and clinics to handicrafts cooperatives, water tanks, pumps, and farming cooperatives. In fact, Wildlife Works facilities are far more visible than those of the local or national governments, and the waiting list for infrastructure projects that need funding is huge.
In Mai Ndombe, the impact is even more dramatic. The 50,000 residents in the isolated forest communities in the 300,000-hectare project area lack almost everything – health care, education, electricity, running water, and adequate nutrition to name a few. Once again, the community-based infrastructure projects being funded through the sale of VERs are popping up everywhere, and reaching the entire community, in place of nearly non-existent state services in education, health care, agriculture, and infrastructure.
When our little delegation arrived in the villages, the Wildlife Works project leader who comes from a line of traditional chiefs in the area was besieged by requests for more projects.
In two dozen interviews with the locals, I heard over and over again how beneficial the projects were and how committed locals were to lessening deforestation as a result. Given the urgency of stopping deforestation and slowing climate change, we need viable alternatives now. From what I saw in Kenya and the Congo, it appears that REDD+ projects–on their own and as part of national programs–could be the best and fastest way to end deforestation by 2030 and meet the Paris Agreement and related Sustainable Development Goals.
Oliver Griffith is a former US Diplomat and World Bank Group (IFC) official with 35 years in foreign affairs, much of it devoted to Africa and economic affairs.