Protecting and restoring the world’s forests: Is REDD enough?

The Earth is being deforested by human activity. We cut and burn forests to clear land for agriculture to feed our triple–F needs: food, fuel and fiber. Then we introduce non-native species into environments where they overtake the natives, and to top it off, some of our economic activities encourage large but unintended forest fires. These activities all release greenhouse gasses (GHGs), principally carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere and contribute to global climate change.

The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD), was initiated in September 2008 to address the role of deforestation as a contributor to global climate change. REDD is the primary international response to deforestation. Is it sufficient to deal with the problem of deforestation? Should it address development issues beyond its initial mandate, issues like water quality and the rights of indigenous people? Or is it another UN program to which parties attach ever increasing goals that may or may not be achievable?

 The “reducing emissions” problem simply stated:

Deforestation contributes the same amount of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere as all forms of transportation worldwide, approximately 17% of all anthropogenic sources, according to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Deforestation is the world’s second largest source of GHGs, after the energy sector.

 What is REDD?

REDD was initiated as a means to reduce GHG emissions from deforestation. It is now frequently seen as a way to address not just climate change, but many other issues including the transfer of payments from the developed world to the developing world for environmental services, preserving biodiversity, and safe-guarding indigenous populations. Is the REDD agreement flexible enough, does it have the capacity to grow and meet those ambitions?

The Bali Action Plan of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, COP 13, December 2007) obligates its member nations to negotiate an instrument that includes financial incentives for forest-based climate change mitigation actions in developing countries. COP 13 also adopted a decision on “reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries: approaches to stimulate action” with fairly standard language on capacity building, technical assistance and technology transfer. It lays out a process under the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Affairs (SBSTA) to address the methodological issues related to REDD emissions reporting. The transfer of satellite technology from the developed world to the developing world will facilitate forest monitoring, if it is done in a way the developing world can afford, but technology won’t stop forest clear-cutting. As every carpenter will tell you, “measure twice, cut once, not the other way.” The same holds true in forest preservation. Measure everything, but measuring is a means to an end, not an end goal. Unfortunately, short-term profit usually trumps long-term preservation. The world’s forests may succumb to the “tragedy of the commons.”

REDD currently has 36 partner countries in Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Latin America. Thirteen of those countries receive financial support for afforestation programs: Bolivia, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ecuador, Indonesia, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Tanzania, Viet Nam and Zambia. The UN-REDD Programme’s Policy Board has approved a total of US$55.4 million, a pittance, for its nine initial pilot countries and four new countries. 

We are not the first generation to cut our forests, and won’t be the last.

European and North American people cut virtually all of our forests between the 16th and the 18th century for fuel that fed the Industrial Revolution. The forests of the industrialized nations of the north are now recovering from our earlier depredation but only by harvesting the forests of less developed nations. After three centuries of deforestation that fed the world economy, the pace of deforestation is slowing but it continues. 

In the past two decades, more acres of trees were cut than were planted on a net worldwide basis. Thirteen million acres of forest were lost in 2010, compared to sixteen million acres lost in 1990, a slower rate of deforestation but deforestation nevertheless. The bulk of the loss in forests is happening in the humid forests of the tropics and sub-tropics, particularly in the Amazon basin and sub–Saharan Africa for pasture, and in Indonesia for timber and palm oil plantations. Australia has lost significant amounts of its forests due to drought and fires which may be tied to climate change.

Simultaneously, forests in North America, Europe and Central Asia have grown by 60 million acres, net, over the past two decades according to the FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010, although the western portions of the US have experienced heavy forest losses in the past three years due to invasive insect species predation and subsequent fires.

We are killing forests and releasing GHGs faster than any previous generation.

The global climate impact of changing forest patterns is significant. Between 2005 and 2010, the world annually lost to the atmosphere one-half of a gigaton (Gt) of carbon that had been sequestered in its forests.

We are reducing biodiversity across the world, even where forests are re-growing.

Biodiversity in the world’s humid forests far exceeds that of the world’s temperate forests. Tropical forests host two-thirds of all of the planet’s species yet less than ten percent of those forests are in legally protected areas. In the rare places where trees are being re-planted in the tropics and sub-tropics, they tend to be in monocultural plantation settings, especially palm oil plantations in Indonesia, Central America, South American and Africa. Non-native plants rarely sustain the mammal, avian, and insect species of their setting.

I will be writing a much longer article and try to examine the following questions in my paper:

  • Does REDD have the potential to transfer sufficient resources to the developing world to protect and restore biodiverse forests? The developed world has turned the tide in protecting its own forests by exploiting the forests of the developing world along with copious amounts of fossil fuels. Can we now protect the forests of the developing world?
  • Is the REDD mechanism, an FAO, UNDP and UNEP triumvirate, the best way to manage a new regime?
  • Are there better means for the developed world to pay the developing world for the environmental services, including breathable oxygen, undisturbed rainfall patterns, biodiversity, fresh water, and avoided siltration of coastal ocean areas, that we derive from their places?
  • How can we incorporate into REDD the other benefits associated with protecting forests? The whole world benefits from bio-diversity, but the developed world is less interested in the localized benefits of silt-free rivers in Guatemala, the Congo Basin and the Hindu-Kush. Widespread deforestation in the Amazon basin shows that the change in the albedo, the index that measures the solar reflection of the planet, has enormous impacts on rainfall in areas larger than the deforested spaces. Should the localized benefits and the less obvious global benefits be a primary or secondary aspect of REDD agreements?
  • Can an international agreement place a more accurate market value on the environmental services produced by forests of the developing world?
  • Does the Clean Development Mechanism/Joint Implementation (CDM/JI) regime mark a better path? Or do the European Union’s emission trading system (EU ETS) and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) of the northeastern US states create an alternative for afforestation and carbon offsets?
  • Maybe we need a whole new system, perhaps a worldwide carbon tax or a Tobin tax on financial transactions, to fund the preservation of the world’s forests and carbon sinks. Again, this may be a topic too big to consider in the limited scope of the next paper, but the question needs to be asked and at least quickly addressed.
  • What role should the indigenous people of the developing world’s forests play in forest preservation? How does national sovereignty mesh with the rights of indigenous people living in the forests?
  • How should we assess forest preservation with both technology and global accounting mechanisms? Voluntary reporting mechanisms seem puny. How big must we go?

 REDD is a relatively young agreement. Most information about it is available only on-line. Deforestation is a much better studied subject, but as our class is about international organizations and not a broad survey of international environmental problems, my reference points will largely be web-based to capture a slowly evolving mechanism.

 Annotated bibliography 

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010 is the definitive statement on the current health of the world’s forests. The GFRA reports, issued every five years, involve hundreds of scientists from virtually every country on the world with 233 individual country and territory reports in the latest edition. Clear graphics and prose make it in comprehensible to inexpert readers. Rich data backed by a large bibliography allow the specialist to dig deeply.  You want the fine granular level of detail? It is here. For example, you can see the number of PhDs in public forest research institutions plotted per million hectares of forest in every country on Earth (p. 161).

The UN REDD agreement provides everything expected of a negotiated statement: what is wrong in the world, good science to back it up, what we should do to combat the problem, the financial incentives needed to change behavior, and lots of aspirational words. But no party is held to account for their misdeeds because no nation would sign an agreement if it hints at culpability.

Submission by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity to the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change The UN Convetion on Biological Diversity Secretariat wants REDD to address biodiversity and submitted this document to make sure REDD is not solely a forest carbon agreement.

 “Prospects for tropical forest biodiversity in a human-modified world” takes the science of forest biodiversity to a higher level, plotting both geographically and temporally the human impact on tropical forests. Science in three dimensions, including the time spectrum, tells us the future we will give to our children and our grand-children. Birds are generally better studied than trees or vascular plants but this report makes it clear that the decline in all is precipitous. This article is the pure science version of the proverb that is attributed to many indigenous peoples, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond, Jared (2005). Print.Jared Diamond’s analysis and then his polemic on the resource consumption choices made by people across the past two millennia shows those choices are rarely made with a view to the future and are frequently disastrous. He does not try to explain all of human social development as a nearly seamless web, as he did in his Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (1997), but instead focuses on smaller separate societies and finds that deforestation can quickly kill sizeable parts of the human, plant and animal world. He writes lucidly, and with his primary training as a Harvard PhD. physiologist and his later careers as an anthropologist, ornithologist, environmental historian and linguist, he is at times spell-binding and has a scope of knowledge that is breathtaking. His explanation of the collapse of the Maya civilization due in part to deforestation in the years 800AD to 1000AD is masterful. Alas, he misses the connection between the protection and near veneration of native forests instilled in Japanese culture by the 16th and 17th century Tokegawa, and contemporary Japanese exploitive behavior in the forests of Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Amazon basin. Diamond nevertheless offers us lessons for our future.


About Jim Marzilli

Jim Marzilli combines expertise in economic, energy and environmental policy with a deep understanding of public policy and politics. He has strong political campaign, organizing, networking, media and communication skills. He played a unique role for eighteen years as an elected official in state government, working nationally and internationally with sub-national and national governments, NGOs and businesses. He left state government in 2008 and went to Iraq to work on a democracy building program. He spent the winters of 2013 and 2014 working in Burma/Myanmar with people who are trying to expand democracy in their country.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Protecting and restoring the world’s forests: Is REDD enough?

  1. Interesting questions! You might find some of the information on REDD-Monitor useful:

  2. Jim Marzilli says:

    Thanks for guiding me to your page!

  3. Pingback: REDD in the news: 17-23 October 2011 |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s