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UN Forest Conservation Program Emerges after a Rocky Start

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REDD+ forest conservation funding for developing nations has dropped precipitously over the last two years, according to a report from Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Heinrich Boll Stiftung, “10 Things to Know about Climate Finance in 2016.”

But according to Mario Boccucci, head of the UN-REDD Programme Secretariat, “The current level of public-sector donor pledging to forest systems and REDD+ is unprecedented. Germany, United Kingdom, and Norway have pledged $5 billion USD for the period 2016 through 2020.” He said REDD+ is taking off now after a challenging few years of development.

When commenting on the ODI report, Boccucci said, “The current level of public-sector donor pledging to forest systems and REDD+ is unprecedented. Germany, United Kingdom, and Norway have pledged 5 billion USD for the period 2016-2020. Global Environment Facility has allocated $700 million. The Green Climate Fund is being capitalized. This sends a very powerful signal.”

The United Nations founded REDD – a program whose acronym stands for “reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” – in 2008. Since then, shaping the success of this program has been a difficult collaborative process.

“We are really at a juncture that has been built over time,” Boccucci said. “We have a conducive policy framework, we have an unprecedented level of public finance that is starting to flow, and that will catalyze even more private-sector sustainable investment. We now have to move fully into implementation.”

Why REDD+ Matters

“Forests are more important left standing than cut,” according to the website of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF). FCPF is one of the organizations that helps structure REDD+ participation for developing nations. Nations need to go through an approval process to participate. 64 countries are currently part of the program.

Because deforestation and forest degradation cause 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to FCPF, rapidly reducing deforestation would have huge environmental and social benefits. However, there are many obstacles that make it difficult to do this.

“It is widely acknowledged that agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation,” Boccucci said.

According to a 2015 report from UN-REDD Programme,“Analysing REDD+ Challenges and Choices,” forests cover 31 percent of Earth’s total land mass. However, forests are vanishing rapidly. This is especially visible in tropical regions. The conversion of forests to other uses causes approximately 10 percent of net global carbon emissions.

In forests, local communities seek food, harvest fuel, collect livestock fodder, gather medicinal plants, and build their homes.

It’s hard to tell exactly how many people live in the world’s forests, according to the UN report; estimates vary. But World Bank estimates state 90 percent of the 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty across the globe rely on forest resources for survival. There are 500 million people who depend directly on forests. 200 million of them are from indigenous groups.

According to the REDD+ website, forests provide more than 3.3 billion cubic meters of wood per year, including charcoal. Also, over 75 percent of the globe’s accessible freshwater springs from forest sources. As forests decline, water quality drops. Floods, landslides and erosion also affect freshwater availability.

Preventing deforestation and forest degradation doesn’t just reduce climate change. According to FCPF, it also prevents floods, conserves water, limits erosion, protects fisheries, lowers run-off, preserves biodiversity, and cuts siltation. Also, indigenous and traditional cultures benefit from forest conservation. 

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How REDD+ Works

REDD emerged from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This organization creates results-based payment incentives for forest conservation in developing nations. A set of organizations including the FCPF, the Forest Investment Program, the World Bank, and the UN-REDD Programme support these efforts.

According to the UN report, REDD originally sought to establish payments for ecosystem services that would be paid from an international organization to forest users. These payments would be sent to forest users who chose conservation over other behavior. However, this model has been adapted since then.  

Over time, REDD has evolved from a focus on climate change to a broader approach that includes enhancement and conservation of forest carbon stocks as well as sustainable forest management.

In 2010, REDD was renamed REDD+ to reflect these new goals.

Some REDD+ initiatives have been set up in advance of the structure that the UNFCCC has been building, the UN report said.

What Makes REDD+ Succeed

When nations’ decisions are not dictated by organizations that support deforestation and forest degradation, that helps REDD+ take root, the UN report said. Supportive coalitions also move the process forward. When nations take ownership of these goals, that creates a crucial element of support that is the foundation for programs’ success.

Targeting regions with high levels of deforestation and forest degradation can optimize the results achieved by REDD+ financing. Conserving biodiversity is one benefit that these projects seek.

In its most ambitious and controversial sense, REDD+ is a catalyst for transforming bureaucracy, the UN report said. When REDD+ shifts the ground rules for regulations, policy and business, removing counterproductive incentives, it can lead to far better results.

Why Obstacles Delay REDD+

It has been much easier for REDD+ to obtain short-term finance than long-term finance. But even short-term finance has experienced delays and problems with disbursements, the UN report said.

In some cases, while waiting for a global framework to be put in place, developing nations with more financial resources have considered self-financing REDD+ or engaging in direct results-oriented agreements with agencies and donors.

It has been difficult for REDD+ to develop accurate emission factors to calculate estimates for most tropical nations. This lack of quality data has been an issue, the UN report said.

Land tenure reform for forest-dwelling communities is one of the many catalytic controversies that REDD+ can bring up. Usually, participating nations have not been enthusiastic about addressing this issue. The UN report said projects that attempt to intervene in this context tend to run into problems.

Other social issues come up as well. Benefit sharing with local residents and other stakeholders is a challenging balancing act that REDD+ has been working on resolving. Financial objectives need to be seen as fair to have local, national and international buy-in.  

What the Next Steps Are

“We are now at a point where we are turning our attention and energy and intervention to moving on from the preparatory phase and getting into implementation,” Boccucci said. “In the past 10 years, there has been an increasingly significant level of investment in capacity building, policy dialogue, and developing a regulatory framework for REDD+ –  to the point where the Paris Agreement has in its Article 5 a significant recognition of forest contribution.”

Article 5 of the Paris Agreement encourages forest conservation through results-based payments. UNFCCC has also developed a set of guidance, the Warsaw Framework.

“There’s an increasing critical mass of champions – agents of change – over a larger number of countries and civil society,” Boccucci said. “I think there’s also an unprecedented level of financing that has been pledged and has started to flow. REDD+ has gone through its gestation phase. It’s got its regulatory framework. With the entry into force of the Paris Agreement, we can hit the ground running.”

Note: The first quote above was edited by an interviewee on 3/6/2017.

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