Photo credit: Matthew Steil/WRI
Photo credit: Matthew Steil/WRI

To combat global warming, forests must be part of the solution. How can we make good forest stewardship a reality?

2010 is a crucial year for forests. In March, major donor countries and forest-rich countries will meet in Paris, Nairobi and Manila, each grappling with the same question: how can efforts to reduce deforestation also help tackle climate change? Their decisions, and those following in the next six to twelve months, could channel substantial amounts of money to protect forests. Manish Bapna, Managing Director of the World Resources Institute, answers questions about the current window of opportunity to address both forest loss and climate change, and what is at stake in getting these mechanisms right.

Why are forests important in efforts to tackle climate change?

Forests are one of the greatest environmental challenges—and opportunities—facing the world in the 21st century. Forests are well known for their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, but when they are destroyed they release CO2 into the air. This helps explain why Indonesia, a developing country with high rates of deforestation, now has one of the highest emissions rates in the world.

Forest loss contributes as much as 12-15% to annual greenhouse gas emissions, about the same as the entire global transportation sector. It will be practically impossible to avoid dangerous climate change without addressing this problem. That is why forests must be part of the solution.

What is REDD?

REDD stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation.” A REDD mechanism would seek to provide incentives for developing countries to make those reductions. Right now, forest areas are often worth more harvested than left standing. At its core, REDD aims to change incentive structures in favor of protecting forests.

A REDD mechanism could provide compensation to governments, communities, companies or individuals if they have taken actions to reduce emissions from forest loss below an established reference level. The sustainable management of forests then becomes a smart economic decision, as well as a smart decision for the environment.

Although funding towards REDD will likely take many different forms, one option that is often discussed is to link REDD to carbon markets in developed countries. Companies could then meet their emission reduction commitments by channeling funding to REDD in forest-rich countries. Carbon markets would generate significant funding for REDD – at a scale rarely seen before. There is a risk, though. If REDD does not work as intended, its failure could reduce or even eliminate reduction efforts in developed countries.

What makes REDD so challenging?

In Copenhagen, countries agreed to the “immediate establishment of a mechanism including REDD-plus” to tackle emissions from deforestation. What this means in practice, though, has not been entirely clear. The idea of supporting countries to protect their forests sounds simple. But governments have only limited control over many of the drivers of deforestation. There are a number of difficult questions that have yet to be fully answered.

  • How do you ensure that REDD leads to emissions reductions that are “real and additional,” meaning they would not have happened without a REDD program?

  • How do you know that reducing deforestation in one place will not cause increased deforestation in another? This is what is called “leakage.”

  • How do you know that REDD will not just be a temporary fix, but rather will protect forests permanently?

  • How do you ensure that REDD will not adversely impact the rights and livelihoods of the millions of people who live in or around forests, especially in poorly governed states?

  • How do you measure, report and verify emission reductions from forests? This is especially challenging for measuring reductions in forest degradation.

These are just a few of the questions that arise, and they do not have easy answers. This helps explain why the possible mechanisms for achieving REDD have aroused such debate.

Why is good governance of forests important?

Money on its own cannot solve the deforestation challenge. History has proven this point time and time again.

Deforestation is as much an issue of poor forest governance – the processes, policies, and laws by which decisions that impact forests are made – as it is an issue of misaligned economic incentives. When you look at the main drivers of deforestation, such as agricultural expansion, logging, and infrastructure development, they are often symptoms of a larger failure of governance. Many forest-rich countries do not have strong enough institutions and processes needed to value and protect forests and people who depend on them. They will not be able to manage their forests until these factors improve.

REDD cannot be removed from this context. Without effective governance, money distributed through REDD could lead to some of the perverse outcomes I mentioned before. This issue could be further complicated by carbon markets because of the significant additional funding such markets could unleash. It could lead to a kind of “resource curse,” in which large inflows of funding can actually fuel corruption and bad governance. That’s why any approach to reducing deforestation, including a REDD mechanism, has to promote and support improvements in forest governance if it is to be successful.

How do we improve forest governance?

We must start with an understanding of what makes for good governance of forests. This is a question that WRI has grappled with over the past two years. We have developed a methodology, called the Governance of Forests Initiative (GFI) indicator framework that can help governments, civil society and other stakeholders assess the strengths and weaknesses of forest governance in their countries. This type of diagnostic can serve as a starting point for reform, uniquely tailored to each country.

Going forward, international efforts must focus on supporting developing countries to strengthen forest-related institutions, build participatory processes, and ensure proper social and environmental safeguards are in place.

Why is 2010 proving to be such an important year for forests?

The stakes are high this year. We are going to see how US climate legislation moves forward and how it incorporates REDD. The European Union will decide whether to include REDD in the next phase of its emissions trading scheme. Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will decide how to ultimately operationalize REDD in a global climate deal. These decisions are going to shape global efforts to protect forests. 2010 is the year in which the momentum to address the interlinked challenges of forest loss and global warming can either lead to real change or fade away.