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REDD+ Framework Effectiveness to Reduce Carbon Emissions from Deforestation

What is the biggest challenge the REDD+ framework faces when addressing deforestation?

Framing the problem

Forests are a key component in the fight against climate change, as they can be both the problem and the solution, depending on how they are being managed. Forests are natural carbon sinks, meaning that they store more carbon that they release in the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. As a result, these ecosystems “store more than three-quarters of the carbon in terrestrial plants and nearly 40% of soil carbon” (Gorte and Sheikh, 2010, p.1). Moreover, all forest were not made equal carbon sinks: some forests, such as boreal, tropical, primary (which are older forests) and particularly wetlands such as mangroves, store much more carbon than an average woodland or temperate forest (Gorte and Sheikh, 2010, p.7).

Yet, despite the importance of forests, they are under threat from the high deforestation rate, which was estimated to be around 10 million hectares per year between 2015 and 2020 according to the FAO.

As deforestation is a self-explanatory concept, which is the action of cutting down forests, it is rarely defined in academic literature or in international organizations’ and NGOs’ resources per se. Instead, deforestation is defined through its causes and consequences.

Here is an international organisation’s understanding of deforestation:

« FAO defines deforestation as the conversion of forest to other land uses (regardless of whether it is human-induced). »


FAO, 2020.

Here is the international NGO Greenpeace’s definition of deforestation, with a more emotionally-driven vocabulary:

« The world’s natural forests and other critical ecosystems like grasslands […] are being cleared to make room for livestock, replaced by mono-crop plantations like soy and palm oil, exploited for timber, and withering from the impacts of climate change. »

Greenpeace, Forests Issues & Threats.

Finally, some institutions frame the issue in the opposite way, according to their interests. Shell, for instance, in an effort to put the focus on its efforts and contribution to fight climate change, does not mention the negative word of deforestation or the passive act of preservation, but rather its projects « redevelop » a natural area and promote reforestation and nature-based solutions.

« Nature-based solutions are projects which protect or redevelop natural ecosystems, such as forests, grasslands and wetlands. »

Shell, Nature-based solutions, 2020

Based on the diverse existing definitions, here is my understanding of deforestation:

Deforestation is the environmentally unsustainable act of clearing previously forested areas to exploit their natural resources (timber, mining…) and to convert them into economically productive spaces (agriculture, cattle grazing…), which contributes to CO2 emissions.

However, all forests do not face the same amount of pressure from deforestation. On the one hand, intensive deforestation in temperate forests already took place over a century ago, when the West was developing. On the other hand, tropical forests, which are defined by their location “between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn” (Gorte and Sheikh, 2010, p.12), have the highest rate of deforestation in the world, while they also happen to most biodiverse regions. Deforestation is particularly severe in South America and Southeast Asia, such as Brazil and Indonesia where forested spaces are converted to into soy plantations and grazing lands for the former, and palm oil exploitations for the latter.

What is REDD+ and how does it tackles the problem?

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of carbon stocks (REDD+)  is a framework that was founded during COP13 in Bali and is thus part of the UNFCCC. Its aim is to “guide activities in the forest sector that reduces emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, as well as the sustainable management of forests and the conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries » (UNFCCC). The framework received more attention in 2013 when the Warsaw Framework for REDD+ was fleshed out at COP19 and was given a concrete methodological and financing plan to implement REDD+ at a global and local scale.

Before continuing on, what is the difference between REDD, REDD+ and UN-REDD? REDD is the earlier version of REDD+ founded in 2005, and only incorporated the mission to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The framework grew in 2007 when the UNFCCC parties added the mission of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of carbon stocks, represented as the + in the name. Finally, while REDD+ is a framework part of the UNFCCC mandate, the UN-REDD is a programme in partnership with UNDP, UNEP and the FAO that aims in assisting countries in implementing nationally and locally the REDD+ framework and its initiatives (UN-REDD Programme).

What is REDD+ institutional design and is it suitable to tackle deforestation?

REDD+ faces challenges to address deforestation because of the asymmetry between the actors, and the strategic importance forests are to promote development, and because of a compliance difficult to enforce.

  • PROBLEM STRUCTURE

Is deforestation a symmetric or an asymmetric problem? Here, deforestation is an asymmetric problem, and REDD+ way to engage with deforestation further deepens the asymmetry. According to Koremenos et al (2001), asymmetry can be identified in the “distribution of actors’ capabilities”. Because REDD+ is part of the UNFCCC, it also includes the legal division between Annex 1 and Non-Annex 1 countries. While this division has played a key role in recognizing the concept of climate justice and historical responsibility, it inevitably creates a power imbalance when implementing the programme because of the dependency it entails. Indeed, REDD+ success depends on Annex 1 countries financial support to act as a motivation and reward to the non-Annex 1 countries when protecting their forests and thus not economically benefitting from them. The other asymmetry comes from an arbitrary categorization of forests: while the west freely deforested their territories for their development a century ago, it is now requesting Global South countries to refrain to do so in exchange for financial compensation.

For REDD+, distribution problems are moderate, and thus Parties are faced with a Battle of the Sexes game. Koremenos et al (2001) state that “a distribution problem refers to selecting one outcome from a range of known possible outcomes”. In the case of REDD+, Parties are faced with two choices: Annex 1 countries can either financially help non-Annex 1 countries and receive carbon units in exchange or do nothing and keep the money for themselves. Non-Annex 1 countries can either continue to exploit their forests as they see fit or receive financial compensation in exchange for preserving them. In this case, the known possible outcomes outside of complying with REDD+ should be less attractive since REDD+ is a mutually benefitting framework. Indeed, Annex 1 countries will need to find other solutions to reduce their carbon emissions in order to achieve their Paris targets. If it will not be through buying out their carbon unit, the states will need to put in place structural or infrastructural adjustments on their territory that would be more costly in terms if time, resources and politically. As the emergency of climate change is increasingly taking root in public opinion’s mind, non-Annex 1 countries do not face a better alternative. Continuing to exploit their forests might boost states’ revenues and accelerate development, it is a short-term benefit as once an ecosystem is destroyed, the damage is permanent. Therefore, REDD+ is a cost-effective framework (Gupta et al, 2012, p.77). Annex 1 countries “are attracted by […] its potential to help them meet their emissions reduction targets; non-Annex 1 are drawn by the prospects of funding and view REDD as their opportunity to participate meaningfully in the global climate change regime” (Gupta et al, 2012, p.77). Yet, it has to be recognized that compliance for the Global South is more costly that for the Global North: participating in this framework means forgoing a potential source of revenue and development on the short-term in exchnage for a financial reward on the longterm.

While enforcement problems are not high for the REDD+ framework since, as previously showed, compliance can be mutually beneficial, it is moderate because it remains difficult to detect. In the case of REDD+, the enforcement problem does not only arise from “the actors find[ing] (current) unilateral noncooperation so enticing that they sacrifice long-term cooperation” (Koremenos et al, 2001, p.777), but also from the entire framework and its provisions being voluntary (Gupta et al, 2012 p.80). All of the various decisions that make up the REDD+ framework corpus reflect a loose, or even non-existant, enforcement mechanism illustrated by a soft vocabulary, such as “invites”, “encourages”, “agrees”, and “decides”, instead of stronger push for action with words such as should, or the obligation shall (UNFCCC Secretariat, 2016). Moreover, each call to action, from “strengthen[ing] and support[ing] ongoing efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” to “to submit proposed forest reference emission levels and/or forest reference levels”, is specified to be “on a voluntary basis” (UNFCCC Secretariat, 2016, p.2; p.18). Therefore, enforcement is difficult since there is no punishing mechanism in case of non-compliance.

Finally, uncertainty spurs mainly from actors’ preferences and behavior. Uncertainty of behavior is cause by the non-binding nature of the framework. There being no enforcement mechanism, non-compliance is difficult to detect. With uncertainty of preferences, the uncertainty level is moderate because, despite the mutually befeficial agreement REDD+ entails, a Global South state’s priority will still be development. A foreign interference a given country’s forests management can be seen as an infringement on soverignty, a sensitive issue for states. Moreover, not exploiting forest resources in terms of agriculture, mining or wood can result in a direct loss of potential revenues that a developing state might not want to sacrifice. In terms of the state of the world, uncertainty is low because the actors understand well the system. The effect of deforestation on CO2 emissions and climate change are now widely known and accepted (IPCC, 2018, p.816).

  • DESIGN FEATURES

REDD+’s scope is two-fold. On the one hand, there is the forests and biodiversity conservation dimension, and on the other, there is the mitigating climate change through reducing carbon emissions dimension. REDD+’s original mission focused on the the mitigation of emissions, but its mandate was broadened in 2007 to unclude the conservation dimension.

Membership in the REDD+ framework is not only inclusive, is also happens de facto since REDD+ was created by the UNFCCC parties. However, although REDD+ includes all COP parties, as mentioned in almost all of the Decisions, participation, implementation and compliance is voluntary (UNFCCC Secretariat, 2016). The inclusive membership also allows for high flexibility: the framework allows any member to propose an amendment during the COPs, and changes should preferably be accepted through consensus rather than formal negociations (UNFCCC, 1992, p.26). However, control remains under the UNFCCC secretariat, the institution under which REDD+ is centralized. Moreover, even if states remain the main actors, non-state actors take part in the implementation of the various REDD+ programs around the world. For example, the giant fossil fuel corporation Shell is contributing to REDD+’s reforestation initiatives in Spain and the Netherlands. Local NGOs and communities are also essential to REDD+ projects as they are key in implementing and monitoring the projects on the ground (FAO, 2016, p.2).

To conclude on REDD+ institutional design, the framework has many strengths to ensure its effectiveness. The exchange of financial support for carbon unit is theoretically cost-effective and thus encourage both developed and developing countries to take part in it. The very low level of enforcement also ensures maximum participation, especially in an anarchic international system where states seek to safeguard their sovereignty and thus tend to steer clear of coercive agreements. Finally, REDD+ framework is very flexible, as any party can request an amendment during a COP. According to Abbott and Snidal (2010) this type of governance is part of the Transnational New Governance’s (TNG) Regulatory Standard Setting (RSS) which is “the promulgation and implementation of non-legally-binding standards of behavior” (Abbott and Snidal, 2010, p.316). In other words, REDD+ is orchestrating the global deforestation issue by offering a framework open to any state and non-state actors to take part in. Indeed, while the REDD+ framework offers broad guidelines, recommendations and technical assistance, the success of its mission depends on local actors and local implementation of project by communities themselves, local NGOs and governments (Jodoin, 2017, p.153). Relying on norms instead of binding rules is a way for an institution like REDD+ to enhance their legitimacy, their reach, and their efficiency (Abbott and Snidal, 2010, p.328).

Is REDD+ efficient?

Through the analysis of REDD+ institutional design, we have seen that the institution regroups qualities, such as its inclusivity and flexibility, that are useful to promote participation and compliance. Moreover, the threat of climate change and the CO2 emissions from deforestation are both at the forefront of the international agenda. Carbon emissions become negative externalities when producers do not bear the cost of CO2 emissions, and thus the price of the product does not match the true cost of production. As a result, it is society and ecosystems that bear the costs in the form of climate change. Carbon pricing is a solution to tackle climate change as this crisis is understood to be the result of a market failure and was adopted by REDD+ in order to give forests value (cf. the infographic below). Yet, REDD+ has not been very efficient in carrying out this mandate, especially regarding the carbon market system. Why is that?

The four main divers of deforestation are beef, soybean, palm oil and wood products, which total export value for the year 2011 was of about $134 billion (Douglas, 2015, p.549). Therefore, the value of exploiting forests should have an equivalent on the global market for carbon emissions in order to understand, replicate and thus create an incentive to divest from these harming practices. Yet, this cannot be done because there is no international carbon market with an internationally agreed upon price. The closest to such a market exists within the European Union, where 1 tonne of CO2 costs 50 euros since May 2021. On the other hand, one ton of carbon in China costs around 4 dollars. This inevitably raises the question on how REDD+ can practically give forests an economic value when there is no global carbon market to back this value and when, on the other side, we are dealing with « industries that mobilize hundreds of billions of dollars annually » (Douglas, 2015, p.550). This is why this aspect for a carbon market has remained inefficient and that most REDD+ funding remains public funding today (Douglas, 2015, p.551)

So, how can REDD+ efficiency be improved? When designing the REDD+ framework, the dificulty was to create a meaningful agreement while generating the widest support from the international community. If any international rule is a threat to a state as it is seen as an infrigement on sovereingty, forests management in the Global South is particularly sensitive as it tells states how to manage their territories and resources. Therefore, having a non-binding agreement was a solution to ensure support and induce change for this sensitive issue. Moreover, putting a price on carbon in order to make its effects economically visible is a good strategy that REDD+, along with others such as the EU, are trying to adopt. Giving carbon an economic value is a solution to more effectively address CO2 emissions, and in REDD+’s case, it creates a positive incentive to prevent deforestation and refrain from using forests’ resources. However, it seems that REDD+ is in advance of its time, as a global carbon market does not exist yet, and thus makes a framework with no enforcement mechanism weaker. This contradiction can further discourage states participation: who decides the price of carbon? what would be a price high enough to encourage investments but low enough not to cancel the potential benefits encouraging participation in the first place? REDD+ either needs to change its financing method and rely on public spending, or it will have to wait for the world to adopt a global carbon market to truly flourish.