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REDD+ Can Be a Game-Changer in the Battle Against Tropical Deforestation

By Dr. Tom Evans

In a high profile side event to the UN General Assembly next week, UN agencies, NGOs and the private sector will gather at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo to celebrate recent successes in forest protection to combat climate change and call for much greater future investment.

More success is needed. Numerous recent studies show that greenhouse gas emissions continue to accelerate and the resulting climate change is a severe and immediate threat to human well-being. While climate adaptation strategies are now essential, the first order of business is to reduce emissions going into the atmosphere. Deforestation in the tropics today contributes about 12% of global emissions, so addressing this problem must be part of any comprehensive climate strategy.

Madagascar's Makira forest is the site of WCS's most developed REDD+ program - Julie Larsen Maher/WCS
Madagascar’s Makira forest is the site of WCS’s most developed REDD+ program – Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

In 2007 the global community developed an approach known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation, Degradation, and associated threats to forests). Payments from developed to developing nations will reward measurable conservation successes while creating incentives for the private sector to make commodity supply chains ‘deforestation free.’

REDD+ Projects protect the land rights of local people like these in Madagascar - Julie Larsen Maher/WCS
REDD+ Projects protect the land rights of local people like these in Madagascar – Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

Under REDD+, developed countries or private companies can count protected forest carbon as a part of their own emission reduction targets, making those targets easier and cheaper to reach. In the process they transfer significant sums of money to developing countries where the conservation occurs, with all the social and environmental benefits that implies.

By focusing on results and rewarding countries that provide environmental services, this could be a game-changer in the struggle to halt tropical deforestation. But since 2007 REDD+ has not progressed as fast as hoped. Two obstacles have been a lack of concrete incentives and the practical challenges of setting up the system.

Redd+ not only protects land but wildlife such as this red-ruffed lemur and baby in Madagascar's Makira forest - Julie Larsen Maher/WCS
Redd+ not only protects land but wildlife such as this red-ruffed lemur in Madagascar’s Makira forest – Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

Whilst the global incentive structures are laboriously debated, interim measures can build momentum, allow design testing, and boost confidence. Here smaller, more nimble players are already making a difference. Examples include Norway’s multi-billion-dollar pilot programs with several tropical countries, the World Bank’s Carbon Fund, California’s forthcoming cap-and-trade system, and the large and growing global voluntary market for carbon offsets, which is driven by the private sector.

Despite these positive examples, there is a desperate need for both governments and the private sector to raise their level of ambition for a global agreement and to invest more in interim financing measures. Major decisions by a few key actors could have dramatic and rapid effects, promoting belief and action in tropical forest countries.

Langurs in Cambodia’s Seima Protection Forest, one of many sites where WCS is pursuing REDD+ initiatives - Colleen McCann/WCS
Langurs in Cambodia’s Seima Protection Forest, one of many sites where WCS is pursuing REDD+ initiatives – Colleen McCann/WCS

Early experiences have taught us that while the REDD+ concept is simple, in practice it must address complex issues like human rights, economic trade-offs, and measurement challenges – often in settings with weak governance. If we are to work at a more ambitious scale, it will be essential that such efforts are effective, efficient, and equitable — the three Es of REDD+.

Yet with the right incentives, these practical challenges could likely be overcome and in fact the conservation community faces such obstacles every day. A key issue is that forests must be managed for multiple values beyond carbon, including local livelihoods, biodiversity, disaster risk reduction, and water supply. Besides their moral value, such considerations are crucial to ensuring the durability of measures to protect carbon stocks.

_Julie Larsen Maher _ WCS 2779 ambodivoangy, area north, makira, madagascar CROP
REDD+ projects enable local people to harvest wood sustainably – Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

The risk of dispossessing legitimate, traditional forest users as a shortcut to reducing emissions requires that that REDD+ be transparent, with meaningful systems for redress. Existing safeguard mechanisms, while still being developed, already exceed anything applied under most previous large-scale conservation programs so there is reason to be optimistic.

We know that REDD+ can be made to work given the right conditions. The Wildlife Conservation Society is one of several organizations now working at the landscape scale. Our work in Madagascar’s Makira forest – a protected area ringed by vast areas of community-managed land – shows what can be achieved in a desperately poor and hugely biodiverse country.

Protected Green Skeleton Frog in the Makira forest - Julie Larsen Maher/WCS
Protected Green Skeleton Frog in the Makira forest – Julie Larsen Maher/WCS

Makira has already avoided nearly a million tons of CO2 emissions in its first five years while benefiting a local population of over 50,000 people with improved rights to over forest resources and critical investments in agriculture, water, sanitation, and education. At the same time it has helped ensure the survival of a rich diversity of endangered lemurs, birds. and other species.

Valuable in its own right, Makira provides a national testing ground for everything from community rights to financial structures. Perhaps most important, Makira and projects like it show that REDD+ can deliver on its early promises.

For REDD+ to become a reality at scale, governments and the private sector need to promote increased demand for the emission reductions REDD+ can offer. To support this, other stakeholders need to better communicate the successes achieved to date and remain vigilant that the three Es – effectiveness, efficiency, and equity – remain central to the REDD+ vision.

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Dr. Tom Evans leads the REDD+ program for the Wildlife Conservation Society.