Posts Tagged ‘REDD’

Bottom up thinking points the way for REDD

More good stuff from CIFOR, this time a survey of 23 different pilot REDD+ projects from around the tropics. The variety of approaches on show just goes to show, again, the benefits of Bill Easterly’s ‘seekers’ over ‘planners’. At both national and international levels I fear there is not enough flexibility in how government officials expect REDD+ to be delivered. And while there is plenty of justified scepticism about the prospects for REDD+ itself, I reckon a lot of that would go away if the price for carbon climbed up to the $20-30 per tonne of carbon dioxide that many experts think is required to push the global economy into making the necessary changes to head off catastrophic climate change. Less faffing around in negotiations and a clearer regulatory landscape would no doubt help too.


Community conservation needs to be meaningful for communities

Some good stuff pumped out by CIFOR as part of a big comms effort around the latest round of international climate change talks, that this year took place in Lima. Much of the best stuff has a relevance far beyond just the UNFCCC negotiations bubble. One thing that particularly caught my attention was this story about what conditions are required for the successful involvement of local people in monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of carbon savings achieved through REDD+ activities. Manuel Boissière, a CIFOR researcher, boils it down to four things:

  1. Relevance – “if something about the project is not seen as relevant to their daily lives, local people might not be willing to commit to such a project.”
  2. Skills – not just technical capacity and literacy, but “is it always clear to local people what it is they are measuring?”
  3. Reporting systems – how do you get the data back to HQ? (An important consideration, but the least interesting lesson.)
  4. Quality validation – “the ability to check whether the data that have been collected are correct.”

The 4th is the hardest, Boissière reckons. Just using some remote sensing in the office doesn’t cut it, because it is a one-way street: the scientists can check their data, but it doesn’t provide any useful feedback to communities, and any good quality control system involves rapid feedback. Instead Boissière recommends an approach based around participatory maps that are meaningful to the local communities.

“If you look at academic literature [on community participation in MRV], it’s all about cost-efficiency—how to get local communities participating in tree measurement and what is the cost of it, and are they doing a good job compared to scientists or not? And that has been really the limitation.”

I couldn’t agree more, and it’s not just on the monitoring side. I don’t have a problem with those people who first come to the conclusion that they need to work with communities to deliver conservation goals because the resources just aren’t there to deliver ‘command and control’ conservation. It’s a valid observation, and often critically important in persuading officious bureaucracies to loosen up a little bit.

But if that is your sole basis for doing community conservation you are in trouble. If you want to succeed with community-based conservation you absolutely need to make your work meaningful and relevant to the communities. Providing a steady stream of recognisable benefits is very important, and without which you are likely to struggle, but beyond that communities need to be engaged as full partners. They need to have a basic comprehension of what they are doing and why. If they are truly going to (help) manage their local natural resources they need to be empowered to make informed decisions upon bases that they understand.

In short, community conservation will only work when the communities involved actually care. And how do you persuade anyone to care about something?

Tree grab or land grab?

A bunch of smallish NGOs has released a report criticising REDD as apparently incompatible with human rights. Some of these guys have previous form on just about any conservation programme that engages with markets. They have some nice principled arguments, but in the here and now they are so far away from a workable, affordable solution, that they’re just not helpful.

That said I have plenty of sympathy for the people subjected to rights violations mentioned here. I guess you could lay the blame on REDD for motivating at least some of these land grabs, but here’s my concern: are they not fundamentally illegal any way? (Yes, governments will deploy various quasi-legal arguments in their support, but in many cases these are weak, and courts with more than a modicum of independence may well find against them.) Stopping REDD will not stop other land grabs, e.g. for logging, agriculture or mining.

Blaming REDD is a bit like blaming world food markets for agricultural expansion, and betrays the fundamentally anti-markets stance of these critics. Better, I think, to tackle the underlying governance failings that lead to such abuses than to confuse the issue with an attack on REDD, which otherwise can deliver a lot of good to the world. I had the same thought a few years ago when biofuel production briefly menaced this part of Africa: no need for a dedicated biofuels policy if you implement your own land laws properly.

Would you CoP that?

So, busy as I am, I could hardly let pass the fact that the most recent UNFCCC Conference of Parties (you know: those endless climate change negotiations) both plumbed new depths and yet actually achieved something that might be worthwhile.

The bad news:

  1. No-one can find the off switch for the global oven.
  2. Worryingly many people actually appear not to want to find it.

Such conclusions always remind me of Al Gore’s boiling frog analogy (which sadly appears to be not 100% true).

Are the heads of the Polish coal industry an amphibious race of secret infiltrators sent to bring the human race down? We deserve to be told the truth!

But, the long awaited agreement on REDD+ was finally concluded. This was expected about two years previously but had gotten bogged down, just like everything else. Exactly what it contains I cannot tell you: I’m waiting on the policy analysts just like everyone else. But it should be something of a fillip to the whole REDD+ sector. In the long term it needs a global agreement on the bigger questions to provide the market, but in the meantime the World Bank and some other donors have set up a couple of funds to buy carbon credits from REDD+ national initiatives. This, then, may bring us to the crunch, about which I have been warning for a couple of years; the even bigger challenge of operationalising REDD+ on the ground, and how the various architectural elements of REDD+ work against it*.

For now, however, it might just have given everyone working in REDD+ the renewed hope they so desperately needed, and will hopefully persuade donors to keep the faith on various projects they are developing. Whilst on the bigger picture, can we take comfort from the notion that things surely cannot get any worse? Or maybe they can: try asking the WTO.

*See here and here for previous rants on this subject.

The false confidence conferred by a dodgy map

Last Year Morten Jerven called into question the quality of statistics produced by (African) developing countries. In his musings on the political fallout from his publication, Professor Jerven summed up the situation as “governance by ignorance.” It also is clear that many stakeholders have a similar view but are reluctant to say so publicly for fear of the ‘anti-neo-colonialist’ backlash that Prof Jerven experienced.

Although I am slightly shocked that a statistic with as high a profile as GDP is so poorly computed, I really shouldn’t be surprised. Some of the government estimates for forest cover that the FAO collates each year in its annual Forest Resources Assessment are known to be extremely shaky; in some cases they are reportedly based on data years out of date, in others on little more than expert guesses. As with GDP, again many stakeholders are aware of this, and, in the case of donors, have money to throw at the problem.

Unfortunately this fits with a wider pattern in conservation: that we are getting better and better at identifying and measuring the biodiversity we are losing, but not much better at halting those losses. This is not to say that new knowledge is a bad thing; it is a vanishingly rare occurrence when an addition to our total body of knowledge does not increase the public good. But, as many researchers are all too aware, new knowledge can easily be misinterpreted or, worse, abused.

A paper last year from Gardner et al. (A framework for integrating biodiversity concerns into national REDD+ programmes) showed how biodiversity could be incorporated into REDD+ planning, and illustrated this with the map reproduced below that overlays biodiversity and carbon values for the case of Tanzania.


As I understand it, the map is a fair reflection of the current state of knowledge, and no-one should infer any particular agenda on the part of the paper authors. As a simplified guide to national decision making it looks eminently useful.

The trouble is, from what I gathered on a recent visit to the country, that this map may not be a good guide as to where are the best opportunities for effective REDD+ projects. The map highlights the Eastern Arc mountains as an area of “high opportunity (strong positive correlation in carbon and biodiversity values)” for REDD+ intervention. Most of these forests are, in theory, already protected in national parks and forest reserves, but which are threatened by encroachment and illegal resource extraction. A long developed strategy of Joint Forest Management (JFM) is intended to help resolve this, by giving local communities a share of forest revenue, except that this has been held up by the failure of the Tanzanian Government to agree a benefit sharing mechanism for JFM. I.e. potential REDD+ project developers would be advised to steer well clear of JFM in the Eastern Arc Mountains until the benefit sharing mechanism has been agreed and tested in practice.

Such policy issues cannot easily be represented on maps, and I would not expect an overlay to do so. However, theoretical exercises like this can be dangerous in how they may give policy makers and donors the illusion of agency: invest money in the sweet spots and best return on investment will be achieved. This omits the critical step that one needs credible potential solutions before investing money in actual projects. However, the reality of national planning in developing countries, often donor supported, and which this paper purports to assist, is that high level decisions may too easily be made without all the necessary information. Maps such as these are therefore potentially dangerous in implying a higher level of decision-directing knowledge than in fact exists.

(A second criticism is that such mapping exercises can sometimes almost imply a terra nullius – no-one’s land – attitude in which the wishes of existing inhabitants and forest users are irrelevant.)

In conclusion I would question the wisdom of a top down planning approach at all. Rather than prioritising problems I suggest we might be better off prioritising solutions. In which case the value of such maps are rather less than might be first supposed.

Insuring against failure

With Rio+20 about to open I have to give a shout out to the idea of iREDD advanced by Corey Bradshaw et al. They propose to address some of the major challenges of REDD by requiring sellers of REDD credits to purchase insurance (that oh-so-cool i on the front of iREDD). One very good point in its favour is that this should massively increase the buyers’ confidence, although, it should be noted that voluntary carbon market standards such as VCS already require project developers to retain substantial buffers of carbon offsets for just such an eventuality. However, I think financial insurance is a stronger option, since one catastrophe – e.g. a massive forest fire – could wipe out a project’s entire carbon achievements with no recourse. Insurance provided by a highly capitalised third party delivers much better cover for such events.

Thus insurance appears a very good way of dealing with the problem of permanence. It should also be fairly easy; there are pretty good data available on wild fires, whilst forest owners who themselves cleared the forest (or allowed someone else to do so) would be guilty of insurance fraud. (Following the logic of my post yesterday, insurers would probably also have to consider political risk, in which the forest owner suddenly finds they are no longer the forest owner.)

But in tackling the other challenges in REDD in demonstrably delivering real net additional reductions in carbon emissions (see here for my previous observations) iREDD seems mostly just to come down to the idea of insuring against the risk that a proposed action does not result in the desired outcome. Here I see a much greater challenge for insurers. How should they quantify such risks? Every project will be unique in some way or another. I foresee great difficulties in developing standard metrics by which these things can be assessed, and where such guidelines could be determined I fear they would tend to favour cookie-cutter style projects and incentivise against innovation.

On the other hand, if these hurdles could be overcome, this seems to me like an idea that has great potential way beyond the REDD arena. How about if donors required every aid project except for the riskiest (which would therefore obviously stand out) to obtain such insurance? That would force project developers to confront major operational risks in a much more explicit manner than at present. Furthermore it could open up innovative approaches to project funding (donors would expect to get some of their money back when projects fail), and could allow private sector operators taking a greater responsibility for the entire project cycle and assumption of risk. This would be in contrast to the current model for involving the private sector in which big consultancies make fat profits for running flawed projects designed by a donor who should have but didn’t know any better.

Owen Barder recently blogged about attempts to extend the still experimental idea of Social Impact Bonds into the international development space*. These also invite private sector players to assume some of the risk of delivery. Insuring projects against failure could be another option to add into the mix.

In practice I can see that it is going to take quite a while for these various different instruments to be put into practice, during which time we can hope – indeed reasonably expect! – that significant numbers of poor people and poor countries will have developed to the point where they are rather less poor and less in need of development assistance. But that could also work in these ideas’ favour: the least developed countries have the least capacity to engage in these kind of risk-sharing models involving the private sector.

So all in all I think it is great to see innovative thinking around conservation and development finance, and I hope that at least some can come to serious fruition. And I look forward to one day filling out an insurance registration for a project I have helped design!

* The various comments echo my points above about some of the practical challenges that would need to be overcome to introduce these as financial instruments worthy of the name.

Standing on principle

If I am to believe what I read in the Anglo-Saxon press, Germany’s admirable but unbending economic principles are in danger of killing the Euro. Low politics will probably once again kill any hope of a deal at the next UNFCCC CoP which starts in Durban in a week’s time. But even if by a miracle something worthwhile were to emerge from it, e.g. a REDD agreement, I fear that, like the Euro, it may contain within it seeds of its own failure in the form of some admirable but infeasible principles.

For those not familiar with all the ins and outs REDD is built on four key principles:

  • Emissions reductions need to be real and verifiable. Fair enough. REDD would not amount to much if imaginary emissions reductions were to be allowed, but I fear just such an outcome is possible with a fund-based solution that developing countries want. They want a fund-based approach because (a) gives them much for freedom to spend the money how they want (on dreaming up new emissions reductions in endless workshops), and (b) because it gets them out of the next three principles which are much harder to implement. (See here for my previous musings on fund-based versus transactional arrangements for REDD.)
  • Emissions reductions must also be additional, i.e. claimants have to show they would not have happened anyway. This one is the real bugbear for it asks the unanswerable counter-factual question: what would have happened without the REDD project?
  • A related requirement to additionality is the stipulation that only net reductions can be claimed: if a project simply shifts deforestation elsewhere it cannot sell carbon offsets. This puts huge burdens on projects to track all the carbon leakage from their activities.
  • Finally emissions reductions must be permanent. Obviously it does not achieve very much if you pay someone not to chop down a forest today, and next year they (or someone else) go and chop it down any way. All those emissions savings are immediately lost. Except that this also places an unrealistic expectation on the forest owner. What happens if the forest is struck by lightning next year and burns down?

These four simple ideas give rise to huge complexity in project design; complexity that can rapidly overwhelm a project team. The need to really tackle drivers of deforestation in order to deliver emissions reductions that are both net and additional inevitably pushes one towards working through national governments who have the necessary policy levers rather than at the project level. But equally, anyone who has the power to cut down some trees, has a valid claim to REDD funds, and indeed could wreck an otherwise successful initiative. This pushes one instead to working with local communities who live in and around the forests. In reality there should be enough money to go around to deliver both policy changes and to secure local forest protection – indeed enforcing forest protection would itself likely be part of a successful policy mix – but that requires an awful lot of actors to work well together and to agree amicably on how the cake should be divvied up. I am not optimistic.

All of which begs the question: so what would I do with those apparently ever so reasonable principles. Here’s my answer. Firstly we could do away with the need for permanence by calculating carbon stocks as an accumulation of X years worth of growth. Simply divide the total sequestrated carbon C by X to get an annual payment. If the trees are still standing next year pay them again. A forest owner who wanted more money up front could always borrow on the strength of their future anticipated earnings. This approach would enable to local communities who do not understand carbon markets well to test the waters before committing themselves to major land use decisions.

Then net additionality could be tackled by splitting the requirement for forest protection and reducing the drivers of deforestation, which are two separate activities. A simple 50-50 cut could be used as a rough guide. There would have to be limits on how long forest protection could  be funded without equal leakage mitigation, but forest conservation agencies could make a start on protecting the forest now. In particular the much quicker rate of progress which that would facilitate could start to deliver on the overall goal as well: some forms of leakage may not travel far, so, if all the local forests are effectively conserved, then this may in itself reduce overall deforestation as well as contribute to the wider policy push to combat forest loss.

I do not pretend that the above changes do not contain risks, but I think the benefits of vastly simpler requirements for project development would be worth it. I have heard the odd suggestion that some folks in REDD policy circles are starting to wake up to these issues, but the momentum behind the original principled framing seems unstoppable. Some people I know in project development are starting to get very gloomy, and are writing REDD off before it has even got properly started. That would be a crying shame, because I do really feel that the time has come for REDD. If the world does not start to properly value its forests soon we’ll have lost something that can never be replaced.

REDDoubtable concerns

There’s been a flurry of posts recently on that big new idea in international forest conservation, REDD+, which is struggling to be born, conjoined as it is with all the wrangling over a post-Kyoto settlement.

  • Angela Dewan makes the oft-overlooked point that even if forests make a return for local communities that doesn’t change their own aspirations for development which may not be fully compatible with forest conservation. No noble savages here!
  • James Mayers reminds us that governance is going to be critical in REDD+ implementation (there needs to be more than just trickle down to local communities), but that it’s not all bad news, and that in many countries local civil society is agitating for the sorts of rights that once would have been up to donors to impose.
  • At the heart of these governance concerns is that old chestnut, land tenure: both Indonesia and Mozambique are struggling, and many other countries too I should imagine. Ultimately, I think this is where the REDD+ battle will be won or lost, for it’s over land that REDD+ proponents will face their toughest opponents, few of whom will fight fair.
  • Finally, Isilda Nhantumbo has an eight point list on what would make a ‘good’ REDD+ initiative. All are good ideas, but I would caution against over-complicating things. The most important of these ideas should be regulated by governments; others could perhaps be incentivised by the markets. But let us be in no doubt, if you want to scale REDD+ beyond a few NGO-run project islands, then simplicity is the name of the game, and ‘goodness’ needs to be rewarded in the market for anyone to pay any serious attention.

I leave you with a fascinating but depressing titbit of gossip on the international climate change negotiations: of all the countries with something to gain from REDD+, nobody ranks higher than Brazil, and yet, behind the scenes, I hear Brazil are stymieing concluding discussions over the REDD+ component of UNFCCC which could then be finalised and ratified as a standalone treaty, whilst the rest of the stuff drags on. The reason: Brazil already have enough money from donors pouring into their Amazon fund that right now they do not need an international REDD+ treaty, but they (understandably!) do want a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. I have no idea whether this is actually true, but I trust my source.

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