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What on Earth is ‘REDD+’?

© Charlie Shoemaker

Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” from “landscape approach" to “ecosystem services,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation International’s blog looks to make sense of it in an occasional explainer series we’re calling “What on Earth?”

In this installment, we break down “REDD+,” an initiative that aims to curb climate change by protecting forests.

So: What is ‘REDD+’?

REDD+ is a United Nations-backed framework that aims to curb climate change by stopping the destruction of forests. REDD stands for "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation”; the “+” signifies the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

Because forests are good for the climate, correct?

Exactly: Forests release carbon into their atmosphere when they are cut down, and protecting forests represents at least 30 percent of the action needed to keep global average temperature rise at or below 2 degrees Celsius.

So how does REDD+ work?

REDD+ helps countries value the carbon and ecosystem services their forests provide, and create financial incentives to reduce deforestation (when forests are converted to other uses, such as agriculture); reduce degradation (when forests lose their ability to provide ecosystems services); and promote sustainable management (ensuring social, ecological and economic benefits for future generations).

Put simply, REDD+ is the framework through which countries, the private sector, multilateral funds and others can pay countries to not cut down their forests. This can take the form of direct payments or can be in exchange for “carbon credits,” which represent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to compensate for emissions made somewhere else.

As countries are trying to meet their Paris Agreement targets, or nationally determined contributions, REDD+ can help countries get there.

Wait, their nationally determined what?

Nationally determined contributions, or NDCs. Under the Paris Agreement, starting in 2020, all countries have agreed to reduce their emissions according to the national targets they’ve set for themselves.

I’ve heard of the Paris Agreement. How does REDD+ fit in?

Let’s bring in an expert to explain.

“As countries work to meet the NDCs they agreed upon under the Paris Agreement, they can use REDD+ to do that — it delivers emissions reductions while protecting their forests,” says Maggie Comstock, senior director of climate policy at Conservation International. “The Paris Agreement also recognizes that some countries will want to transfer and trade in order to meet those NDCs (but they’re still figuring out some additional rules).”

It sounds like REDD+ could be pretty useful, then. Is it just countries that can use it?

As a matter of fact, no. For example, it could be used by the world’s airlines — a sector responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions — as a way to offset those emissions. REDD+ could be an option for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) , the UN body that governs airlines and which is currently working out a plan to cut emissions across the sector

So who pays for REDD+?

At the moment, money for REDD+ comes from other countries, multilateral finance institutions, the private sector and other actors.

So there’s a real incentive for countries with a lot of forests to get in on this.

Absolutely. Increasingly, countries are seeing the value of REDD+ — and it boils down to the many benefits referred to earlier. “That, I think, is one of the things that can help differentiate REDD+ as an investment compared to other emission reductions, because we do have demonstrated social and environmental benefits,” says Comstock. It’s not just about protecting wildlife and ecosystems — it’s also about how you support communities.”

So is REDD+ working?

Yes, says Comstock, but much more needs to be done. “One factor that could provide major incentives for scaling up forest protection is a global price on carbon, including through carbon markets.”

“This is an exciting time for markets,” says Comstock. “Right now, the current lack of a market discourages investments, which in turn inhibits the development of a market, and so on, but this is changing.”

Countries working on REDD+ must prepare a national strategy, set up a national forest monitoring system and measure the current level of carbon in their forests to gauge change over time. They also need to demonstrate that their REDD+ actions don’t have any unintended negative consequences and instead help improve livelihoods. These steps can be tricky to set up and execute, which is why financial support is so important.

Let’s circle back to those airlines: How are they going to use REDD+, exactly?

Let’s take a step back. Imagine a ruler: At the top of that ruler, we’ve got current emissions levels, and at the bottom, we’ve got where we’d like emissions levels to be at. All that space in between is the work we need to do to drastically cut our emissions and stop the apocalypse of climate change. Countries’ Paris Agreement targets get us a closer to the bottom, sure, but there is still plenty of empty space between where we’re at now and where we need to be.

The airline sector could help fill up some of that space.

Go on.

Airlines collectively decided to cap their emissions at 2020 levels. Anything above those levels will require them to make efficiency and operational improvements (hey planes, maybe don’t sit on the runway forever, burning through fuel). That still probably won’t get them all the way there. So the industry will need tools to offset emissions above 2020 levels, and that’s where REDD+ comes in: it’s a way to offset those emissions.

Comstock explains what makes the aviation sector’s involvement with REDD+ really exciting: “The Environmental Defense fund has run some numbers, and we could be looking at 7.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide over 20 years in terms of demand for offsets just from aviation.”

That’s a lot of trees.

Exactly. If you, too, would like to save some trees, start here: First, find out what your carbon footprint is. Next, reduce it by purchasing one (or more!) of those carbon credits we talked about earlier. One leafy beneficiary of these offsets is a forest-protection project in Kenya’s Chyulu Hills that will prevent approximately 18 million tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted over the next 30 years.

Maggie Comstock is the senior director of climate policy at Conservation International. Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor at Conservation International.

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