Chewing the fat with a colleague recently we were musing upon what has happened to REDD. Clearly the biggest problem is the lack of any global agreement to mitigate climate change, and the consequent collapse in the price of carbon on many markets. But even if this were fixed would there be a long queue of sellers about to push carbon credits from REDD on to the marketplace? We didn’t think so.
The problem is that, as I have remarked before, REDD is far from easy. In fact it contains multiple challenges on so many different levels that, we thought, these difficulties had obscured the strategic focus on the hardest problem of all: actually delivering carbon savings.
Firstly there are the technical and technological challenges around MRV (Measuring, Reporting and Verifying the carbon fluxes) and defining appropriate reference points (the business-as-usual scenario) against which to measure progress. Secondly there are the social justice issues: who will benefit from REDD, elites or local forest dwellers? There were genuine fears that REDD could initiate another land grab by governments, reversing the trend in recent decades towards decentralised and community-based forest management. Finally there were fears that mono-specific plantations might prove more efficient at carbon sequestration than existing natural forests, and that biodiversity might therefore take another beating.
All three sets of issues posed serious challenges which urgently needed addressing. Without the capacity to monitor their own forest carbon stocks developing countries would be effectively barred from participating, or, at best, find themselves dictated to by others who had the necessary technological nous. And there is no doubt that, in some countries at least, the technical and institutional gaps were, and largely still are, quite substantial. Similarly, there is a huge amount to be said for getting the social justice issues properly incorporated from the start, because, like the proverbial oil gusher, once the money starts to flow, it might be very hard to bolt on the relevant safeguards later.
To donors and other big aid sector players these multiple technical and social challenges must have appeared rather like stumbling upon a car crash scene for an ambulance-chasing lawyer. “Aha!” they said, “Here is a role for us.” Projects were created left, right and centre, the dollars flowed, and the consultants came and feasted. People were trained in analysing satellite imagery, whilst gender and indigenous peoples experts galore advised on how to ensure REDD delivered benefits to all. I expect there were even strategies drawn up for dealing with HIV/AIDS in REDD.
But where are the carbon savings that all of this work would support? Here we meet what is both the great strength and the great weakness of REDD: it is almost impervious to fudged or sticking-plaster type solutions. In order to succeed in REDD one must not just conserve a patch of forest, but reduce the drivers of deforestation, so that another forest loss (and hence carbon emissions) are not simply displaced elsewhere. This is hard. Seriously hard. Most of the time someone will lose out, whether it is big business intent on industrial-scale logging or adding another oil palm plantation, or poor farmers pushing further into the bush in order to find more fertile soils.
Such challenges are not susceptible to ‘projectisation’ in the standard aid model that works with mid-level managers plus advisers. Instead they require tough political decisions, probably at cabinet level. It is clear that in some countries (Brazil, Indonesia and Guyana come to mind) REDD has reached this level of serious political engagement, even if (in the case of Indonesia) the desired outcomes are not yet secured. However, elsewhere REDD appears stuck a rung or two lower on the government bureaucratic ladder, and thus the actual mechanism by which forest carbon savings will be generated remains either theoretical or entirely undefined. In such a context all the investment in MRV and social justice seems like the football team that plays very pretty football, with lots of neat passing, but too often fails in its primary goal: to get the ball in the actual net.
All is not yet lost, every country’s situation is different, and if the fundamental carbon markets issues do get worked out I expect a decent price should start to act as a pretty big incentive for countries to get serious about REDD. But it will all, no doubt, take considerable time, which, given the urgency of addressing the problems of climate change is worrying. Certainly it is all a far cry from the hope that major forested countries could all start selling REDD-based carbon credits from the beginning of 2013 when the successor to the Kyoto protocol was originally expected to kick in. Donors might like to consider what all good football managers know: all the pretty passing patterns in the world count for nowt if the team still gets relegated at the end of the season; REDD countries will each need a big-name striker to lead the line if they are to succeed.
ps. All this also makes me wonder what other big development initiatives might similarly have been donorised and projectised into ineffectiveness. Anti-corruption efforts seem a good candidate. Suggestions welcomed in the comments.