Ready for REDD? 3 questions about forests and climate change for Steven Panfil

© Christopher Beauchamp/Aurora Photos

Stop cutting down trees, stop climate change?

It’s not quite that simple, but halting deforestation — the source of more than a tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions — would help to limit the increase in average global temperatures and the associated impacts of a changing climate.

As world leaders gather in Paris to hammer out a final agreement for confronting climate change, a nature-based initiative known as REDD+ looms large — and momentum is already building. On the first day of the conference, Germany, Norway and the U.K. announced plans to support and expand REDD+ — committing up to US$ 5 billion between now and 2020.

Short for “Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation” — the “+” stands for additional features including the role of conservation and sustainable forest management — REDD+ provides financial incentives for communities, regions and countries to keep forests intact, preventing carbon emissions caused by deforestation. With effective implementation, REDD+ is a nature-based solution to climate change.

What role will REDD+ have in a final climate agreement — and how will we pay for it? Steven Panfil, technical advisor of REDD+ initiatives at Conservation International (CI), explained in a recent interview.

Question: Research indicates that nature can provide up to 30% of the necessary emissions reductions needed to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Can you explain more about the role of forests and these “nature-based solutions,” and how REDD+ fits into that?

Answer: Since cutting forests results in high emissions, and because forests sequester carbon as they grow, conserving tropical forests is essential to the success of efforts to combat climate change. REDD+ is a way to provide economic value to standing forests and can therefore change the decisions that countries make about how forested land should be used. Traditionally, forest has been cleared for agriculture because the economic value of leaving the forest standing has been almost zero. If REDD+ can give forests a value, then the calculus about which lands to clear will change.

More carbon is stored in the world’s forests than is in the atmosphere, so keeping all of that carbon locked up in trees and the soil, rather than having it emitted into the atmosphere, is essential for keeping climate change to safe levels. Of course, there are many other reasons that we want to keep forests standing, such as biodiversity, livelihoods, water flow regulation and maintaining sustainable supplies of wood, paper and non-timber forest products.

A major feature of the new agreement is that all countries are meant to be making some sort of contribution to mitigating the causes of climate change and adapting to its impacts. In many developing countries, such as Indonesia, most of the emissions are coming from deforestation. For a lot of the world, in order to make a meaningful contribution to this global effort, we really have to enable them be able to address deforestation.

REDD+ has already been successful at sites like Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest. To make REDD+ work on a global scale, developed countries have to find ways to ensure that there is enough predictable finance so that landowners can know that if they protect forests, there will be an economic return from it. CI encourages developed-country governments to provide part of this finance, but also recognizes that the scale of the investments needed will require private sector involvement, too.

Further reading

Q: What is the status of REDD+ leading up to this year’s climate talks?

A: The negotiations that started back in 2007 concluded during meetings in June 2015 in Bonn, Germany, where agreements were reached on safeguards [to ensure that REDD+ is implemented in a socially and environmentally responsible way]; quantifying non-carbon benefits of REDD+ programs; and alternative approaches to REDD+. The resolution of these items means that the rules for REDD+ are now fully in place, and this reduces uncertainties for the countries developing REDD+ programs.

There’s widespread expectation among all countries that there is a role for REDD+ to continue; today’s announcement of the collaboration between Germany, Norway, the U.K. and Colombia is proof of that. What’s more up for debate right now is how much formal recognition there is going to be in the new agreement, whether the new agreement explicitly calls out REDD+ as a [climate change] mitigation option moving forward, or whether REDD+ is included but in a way that it’s not called out explicitly.

At CI, we feel that it’s not imperative to have explicit mention of REDD+. Ambitious action on climate change will require a range of responses in all sectors. We do, however, want to make sure the rest of the discussion around mitigation and climate change finance is inclusive of REDD+, so we’d like to see that the whole framework works for REDD+. The agreement is meant to be a durable document that may last for decades and therefore should not go into a lot of detail that could become dated. You can think about it a bit like a constitution, which lays out fundamental principles but does not go into the details that are in a country’s legislation. The more detailed language will come from decisions made in coming years.

Q: What happens after Paris?

A: With the methods and the general approach to REDD+ agreed upon, the critical issue moving forward is how will it all be paid for. In other words, how will there be an incentive created that will help countries choose to prevent deforestation rather than clear all that land?

One way to create this incentive is to take advantage of the fact that protecting and restoring forest can be less expensive than other types of mitigation. We’d like to see countries utilizing nature-based solutions like REDD+ in their individual actions and contributions to the Paris agreement. If all countries set ambitious goals for their emissions reductions, then they should be able to create these reductions domestically as well as overseas, where dollars invested in REDD+ can reduce the impacts of climate change while also contributing to the livelihoods of local people and to biodiversity. A big focus for us in coming years will be on making sure that countries have the right tools to stop deforestation and that their efforts to do so will be rewarded.

I’m optimistic that there will be a global agreement, but setting up this agreement is going to require more work over the next five years.

Steven Panfil is CI’s technical advisor for REDD+ initiatives. Cassandra Kane is a staff writer for CI.

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