REDD Fact Sheet: Debunking The Myths; Delineating The Details

Roughly 15% of all greenhouse gasses come from the destruction of tropical rainforests, and Peru has promised to make that a central theme of this December’s climate talks there. That makes sense, because the country has pioneered the use of carbon finance for Reducing greenhouse-gas Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) – the innovative financing mechanism that is quietly being used to protect more forestland than all the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo combined.

REDD, however, remains controversial in some circles, for reasons that appear to be more ideological than logical.

In an effort to provide some clarity in the cacophony, we have culled the Internet for common critiques of REDD and provided our views into their validity in an effort to begin the creation of a clear, concise document that separates myths from reality so that policymakers and the general public can make rational, informed decisions around climate finance.

This is a “living” document that will be updated based on feedback and critique. Registered contributors can make changes directly via the wiki that we created here, but all visitors are free to comment below.


REDD Myths And Realities

Myth:               Offsets let polluters “buy their way out” of their responsibilities.

Reality:            No one denies that companies must reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they generate if we are to solve the climate crisis, but this takes time – as companies like Unilever and Nestle are learning as they try to buy soybeans and palm oil from providers who aren’t chopping forests. Offsets don’t let companies off the hook, but they do make it possible for them to reduce their overall carbon footprints today rather than tomorrow by paying for emission-reductions outside their own operations.


Myth:                REDD Diminishes The Value Of Nature By Reducing ItTo A Commodity.

Reality:             People who buy REDD credits aren’t purchasing nature; they are paying to preserve it. REDD simply provides a financing mechanism that helps them achieve that.


Myth:                REDD Projects Run Roughshod Over Indigenous Communities.

Reality:             Indigenous people have traditionally been the best stewards of the forest, and well-run REDD Projects aim to harness this stewardship by partnering with them. At a jurisdictional level, states like Acre in Brazil are using REDD finance to strengthen indigenous rights, and research conducted jointly by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) shows that countries that embrace REDD have stronger community rights than countries that don’t.


Myth:               REDD Is Useless, Because If You Stop Deforestation In One Place, It Just Happens Somewhere Else.

Reality:            In carbon accounting, the term for this is “leakage”, and the only way to really end it is to eliminate demand for products that drive deforestation. This, however, doesn’t mean that REDD is useless. Indeed, REDD pushing deforestation in to the open, making it easier for companies to eliminate it from their supply chains, and countries like Indonesia are using REDD to promote more efficient land-use practices that reduce the pressure on forests. For now, at the project level, carbon standards don’t claim to eliminate leakage, but they do prescribe methods of accounting for it so that projects don’t earn credits for avoided deforestation that just takes place elsewhere.


Myth:                REDD Involves Walling Off The Rainforest.

Reality:             Most REDD projects aim to reduce deforestion by helping local people find ways to make a living without chopping down the rainforest, but some REDD projects may hire local and indigenous people to act as forest rangers, especially in areas where fire is a threat. Very few projects work by simply walling off the forest.


Myth:                “Carbon Cowboys” Are Snatching Land Across The Developing World

Reality:              A few unscrupulous actors have tried to launch projects that ran roughshod over indigenous people, but none have succeeded — partly because no project will succeed without buy-in from people living in the area, but also because carbon standards won’t recognize credits from any project that runs roughshod over indigenous people. The myth of the carbon cowboy, however, remains as persistent in some media outlets as it is unfounded.


Myth:                 All REDD Projects Are The Same.

Reality:             REDD advocates disagree widely over what does and does not constitute a valid REDD project, and roughly a dozen different standards currently exist.  All of them require third-party validation and verification, to greater or lesser levels of assurance. REDD is currently experiencing growth at the jurisdictional level, where carbon-accounting standards are less rigorous, but the payments are also not being used as offsets.


Myth:                REDD Involves Paying People To Do Nothing.

Reality:             It’s harder – and far less lucrative – to save and maintain endangered forest than it is to chop it down for agriculture or timber. Some of the best REDD projects help local communities find ways to better manage and create new livelihood opportunities.  Well designed REDD projects can ensure communities secure rights to genetic an other resources in the their forest resources.


REDD Questions And Answers

Now, let’s revisit some of the issues we explored above, but in more detail.

What Is REDD?

Broadly speaking, REDD is any program that pays people to save an endangered rainforest if the payment is based on the carbon content of the trees they save. In reality, there are many different approaches to REDD and roughly a dozen different standards, with more on the way. REDD evolved in the voluntary carbon markets, where it proved to be an effective mechanism against deforestation. Now it is being incorporated into government programs around the world.


What Is The Difference Between
Project-Based REDD And Jurisdictional REDD?

Project-Based REDD is how REDD began. It’s when a conservationist – whether for-profit or non-profit – goes out and saves a patch of endangered rainforest in the hope of earning carbon offsets for the carbon locked in trees. The first REDD projects date back to the late 1990s, before there were any real

Jurisdictional REDD is how REDD is evolving. It’s when a state or national government receives REDD payments based on


What Are Offsets?

Broadly speaking, offsets work by funneling resources into the most efficient emission-reduction programs available. They do this by letting government do what it does best and letting the private sector do what it does best. Specifically, the government establishes science-based emission limits above which an industry, sector, or entire economy may not go. The government then issues emission allowances to individual companies, and these allowance become offsets when one company exceeds its  sells it to another, and the price of these offsets rises as the government-imposed cap is lowered, thus driving companies to find the most efficient way to reduce their emissions.

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the definition of offsetting was expanded to include investments in “clean development” projects outside of the emitting industry and even outside the emitting country. REDD falls into this category.


What Differentiates One Standard From Another?

Some focus on environmental integrity, while others focus on “co-benefits”, such as biodiversity protection and the involvement of local people. They also differ in the way they balance what is perfect and what is doable. Projects done poorly won’t help anyone, and neither will projects that are too hard to implement. Most standards aim to establish procedures that are rigorous enough to ensure environmental integrity and prevent abuse, but flexible enough to actually get off the ground.


What Are Specific Differences Between Standards?

The five most popular REDD standards are the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS),the Plan Vivo Standard, the Brasil Mata Viva standard, the Natural Forest Standard, and the Rainforest Standard. The latter three are relatively new and present varying degrees of transparency into standard requirements and project details. Not even sure the latter two have piloted projects yet, but have heard of projects lining up verifiers under the NFS. it’s all voluntary. The only compliance “driven” stuff might be jurisdictional nested redd efforts under the VCS, but that’s still so early stage… and unclear if/how California will engage directly with projects or the jurisdictions, and all of them require third-party validation and verification To greater or lesser levels of assurance. There’s some backtracking taking place (like, I’ve heard that the Natural Forest Standard requires only a desk audit for much of the audit process, which cuts down costs but potentially also thoroughness). More importantly, they all lay out clear guidelines for making sure that the rights of indigenous people and the rural poor are being respected VCS does not – relies on CCB to do this, which projects can choose as additional certification or not. Also not sure I’d call any of it “clear.” CCB requires FPIC but doesn’t define a framework for securing it – VCS doesn’t require FPIC independently of CCB. Not sure about the others, but would definitely confirm this.


What Activities Does REDD Pay For?

That varies from place to place and standard to standard. Most of the newer projects aim to support sustainable agriculture so that people living in and near the forest can earn a livelihood without chopping down trees.


Why Can’t You Just Put A Wall Around The Forest?

To begin with, it probably wouldn’t work outside the isolated boreal forests of the north because tropical forests are massive and difficult to patrol. More importantly, experience has shown that when you exclude communities, they lose any ownership interest in the resource or incentive to preserve that resource, and they can then become a major driving force of deforestation.


Why Do People Chop Down Trees In The First Place?

Ultimately, the cause lies well beyond the forest. That’s because loggers are chopping trees to sell in the developed world, while cattlemen are raising cows for slaughter, and even subsistence farmers have usually been driven from their land to meet these other needs. This also depends on where you live. In the Amazon, for example, large-scale deforestation has been driven by cattle and soybean farmers, while illegal loggers are driving deforestation around the world. Charcoal production is a major source of deforestation in Asia and Africa, but most trees in Asia and Latin America are now being lost to agricultural expansion. sugar-cane for bio-fuels, rubber, etc.  It’s commodities production…conversion timber sales often used to finance the initial development of the agro-industrial development. Sustainable timber management is not the enemy, worried you are falling into the “any logging is bad logging” trap…could have a community forest that sustainably produces timber also produce carbon credits, which doubles the incentive to keep it as productive natural forest rather than converting to agricultural production.


Shouldn’t We Aim to Reduce Global Demand for Greenhouse Gasses?

Yes. REDD is just one tool among many, and it can support initiatives designed to reduce demand – in part by providing transparency in the forestry sector


How Do You Know That A Particular Forest Is “Endangered”?

This is one of the stickiest questions in REDD, and there are basically two responses. One is to look at historical rates of deforestation and use that to determine what is probably going to happen with to forests. The other is to look at the economic situation and compare it to what has happened elsewhere. You can also make the argument that ultimately, all natural forests are now under pressure?


Why Do Companies Purchase REDD Credits?

Some just want to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, but others want to promote sustainable land-management, which helps ensure reliable supply chains.


If You Look At History, Doesn’t That Mean You’re Rewarding Bad Actors?

Perhaps. That’s why econometric modeling has become more popular.


How Does Econometric Modeling Work?

It works by examining the circumstances of a particular region and then comparing it to other regions that have faced similar challenges.


Don’t You Have To Own The Land To Earn REDD Credits?

Not necessarily – in Brazil, for example, the law is quite clear that indigenous land belongs to the government but the carbon belongs to the indigenous people.  (RO) There are also benefit sharing mechanisms being developed where the ownership question is more complex, where co-management of a State owned resource will lead to benefit flows to the communities involved in protection of the resource (employment opportunities, infrastructure development, livelihoods development tied to the forest resources being protected, etc.).  This is the situation in a place like Cambodia, where the State owns the forest-lands and the carbon, but benefit sharing mechanisms are being designed in order to make REDD feasible and functional.


How Can We Prevent This From Becoming A Land Grab?

REDD advocates have been among the most vocal advocates for clarity of land tenure.  (RO) Also need to show that community involvement is key for the success of REDD initiatives. If a land grab approach is taken, the project or initiative will fail.


What About Chiapas? Weren’t Indigenous People Moved Off Their Land There?

They were, but not because of REDD. (Details to follow)


If You Save One Forest, Doesn’t That Just Move The Problem Down The Road?

It can. This is called “leakage”, and it’s the reason policymakers are developing national and sub-national accounting procedures.


How Do Accounting Procedures Work?

Put simply, you measure a the forests in a country, state, or landscape and take stock of all the forces that may threaten them. Leakage is also why REDD can’t work alone – it’s just one tool in a very large and diverse box.  This might be were you get into landscape level land use planning processes, and decisions that countries need to make, involving communities in land use planning processes…REDD can contribute to the development of such bottom up land use planning processes that respect local communities inputs into decision making processes.


What’s The Difference Between Sub-National Accounting And Landscape Accounting?

It’s much like national accounting, except you measure a region within a country — like a state or, even better, a landscape.


What is “Nesting” And How Does It Work?

Nesting is something like a docking procedure — you’re docking national and sub-national REDD regulatory regimes into emerging global and multinational regimes.


So, Is It A Waste Of Time To Buy REDD Credits Now?

No. First, every little bit helps. Can’t Deforestation Just Go To Another Country?

Initially, yes – but that’s where moratoriums come in. We have already seen actions against illegal imports of timber. Again, perhaps too much emphasis on illegal logging, since the vast majority of deforestation in now driven by agricultural development, or conversion.  But this is also, I think, where the argument needs to be honestly made that all forests are under pressure…any bit you can save is a positive (even if you are saving it a s sustainable production forest, where communities can benefit from production and REDD+ credits generated).


What’s To Stop People From Chopping Down The Forest After They Get Paid?

Payments may be made ex-post , which means that the project is paid after the delivery of emissions reductions, because of the uncertainty associated with REDD. This would be difficult for smaller projects because they would have to fund upfront and operational costs from other sources. Alternatively, projects may have stringent risk assessments and contractual liability arrangements attached to them meaning that the seller bears the risk of project failure. Both scenarios would be particularly onerous for smaller projects run by local communities.   But also other mechanisms, similar to conservation easements, or zoning/land classification mechanisms.  This then links to enforcement.  Modern remote sensing technologies are rapidly dropping in cost, making real-time monitoring much easier and feasible.



How Do You Measure The Carbon Captured In Trees?

A combination of remote-sensing – from satellites, zeppelins, and even slow-moving airplanes – combined with “ground-truthing” – which means sending people out to measure trees. Ideally, this work will be carried out by local or indigenous people who become de-facto forest rangers.  (RO) Could you possibly go into some stuff on Lidar technology, just because it is so wiz-bang cool?


Does REDD Provide Enough Of An Incentive To Make Changes?

No. REDD doesn’t really provide an incentive to reduce emissions, because no one who is making a decision based purely on economic goals will choose REDD over palm oil or some other lucrative land use. What REDD provides is a financing mechanism that helps people who want to reduce their emissions do so.


Won’t Governments Just Ignore Tenure If Forests Become Valuable?

The forests already are valuable, and governments are ignoring tenure. Already, organized crime and illegal loggers are encroaching on forests. REDD offers a counterweight to this.


Doesn’t The Price Of REDD Credits Go Up And Down A Lot?

Yes – that, again, is an imperfection in the system.


What About Sovereignty? Isn’t REDD Just Another Form Of Colonialism?

No more than any commercial venture is, and much less than most.



What About Corruption? Won’t Money Make It Worse?

Crime has always existed, and global treaties like the UN Forum on Forests, the International Tropical Timber Organization, and in negotiations on Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (Brack, 2007) haven’t made a dent. Illegal logging and forest conversion take place because there’s no other way to make money off of the forests.


This All Sounds Complex – And Expensive. Won’t That Favor The Big Boys?

That’s a valid concern, but the costs of developing REDD projects are coming down as more projects get done, and emerging methods of developing community REDD projects aim to help small landowners participate in large-scale REDD projects.


Aren’t Forests Doomed Anyway?

There’s some evidence that forests will lost their ability to absorb carbon if global temperatures rise more than 2°C, but we are now at a sweet spot where forests are growing faster than ever in recorded history due to the phenomenon of “carbon fertilization”. The general consensus seems to be that, moving forward, forests will need to be actively managed if they are to survive, and REDD offers a mechanism for providing that finance.



What About Biodiversity? Will REDD Help Preserve It?

That, again, is a legitimate concern. UNEP, for example, refers to research indicating that only 15% of global carbon stocks are currently located in protected areas. There is a vigorous debate taking place as to whether REDD should focus just on carbon stocks — because of the overwhelming threat of climate change — or on biodiversity. This debate echoes the debate over the role of indigenous people.


Aren’t Carbon Markets Susceptible To Corporate Lobbying?

Everything is susceptible to corporate lobbying, and one way to combat that is transparency – which markets bring.


What About The EU ETS? Wasn’t It A Failure?

EU ETS was a first attempt, and where it failed, it failed because of exemptions. One of the great advantages that markets offer over command-and-control is that you have a simple line and no fiddling – but once you start granting exemptions and trying to micro-manage a market, you take away the advantage that a market brings. That’s what happened with EU ETS. Too many permits were initially provided to certain industries.

Steve Zwick

I edit Ecosystem Marketplace, which is a news service focused on environmental finance. With this blog, I hope to offer coverage that is a bit lighter and more holistic than what we offer on EM.

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