Conservation news

REDD+ more competitive than critics believe, study finds

  • Critics have argued that the strategy known as REDD+, or reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, hasn’t adequately slowed emissions from forest loss in developing countries in the way it was intended.
  • Introduced in 2007, REDD+ is meant to help individual countries earn money for development when they lower the amount of released carbon from clearing and degrading forests.
  • In a recent paper focused on the South American country of Guyana, a team of researchers argues that the problems with REDD+ stem from its implementation at the project level.
  • REDD+ implementation across the jurisdiction of an entire country would address nearly all of the problems with individual REDD+ projects, and societies would benefit more financially than they currently do from commercial forest uses such as gold mining and logging, the researchers say.

A global strategy aimed at stemming climate change-inducing carbon emissions from tropical forest loss would better accomplish its goals if implemented in the manner intended, according to recent research.

The strategy known as REDD+, or reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, could also help to end the “business-as-usual” interests that have been blamed for holding it back, the study’s authors say.

First introduced in 2007, the idea behind REDD+ is that individual countries earn funding for development by lowering the amount of carbon they release into the atmosphere from the clearance or degradation of their forests.

In a paper published in June in the journal World Development, a group of scientists contends that it’s not that REDD+ is inherently flawed. It’s that REDD+ hasn’t been given a chance to work in the way it was designed — that is, over a country’s entire jurisdiction.

A project aimed at sustainable logging in Iwokrama Forest Reserve, Guyana. Image by Han Overman.

“It has not yet been implemented at national level,” Han Overman, the paper’s lead author and a tropical ecologist at the State University of New York at Syracuse, told Mongabay.

Overman and his colleagues analyzed economic data from Guyana in South America, along with the country’s forest reference emissions level, or FREL, to understand the potential for REDD+ in the country. Guyana was the first country to have the U.N. technically approve its FREL submission. This comprehensive, transparent accounting of its historical emissions from deforestation and forest degradation also plots out the carbon density of the country’s forests.

The team’s work revealed that virtually all of the problems that arise when REDD+ is implemented on a project-by-project basis disappear when it’s enacted at the broader country level. What’s more, national-scale REDD+ can hold its own financially in comparison with commercial forest interests when the financial value to society as a whole is accounted for.

An April 2018 study by the same team published in the journal Forests found similarly that indigenous communities in Guyana could benefit financially in a substantial way from national REDD+.

A group of people in Guyana learn to make biomass measurements in the forest. Image by Han Overman.

Since the REDD+ approach was launched just over a decade ago, its impacts have been scrutinized, with individual projects having functioned as a sort of a proving ground of the mechanism. The often geographically isolated projects have drawn the attention of critics who contend that REDD+ hasn’t slowed deforestation or forest degradation appreciably, and in some instances, it has been blamed for a bevy of adverse effects. Indigenous groups worried that they might lose control of their lands. Critics have also flagged concerns about the permanence of emissions reductions, whether they would actually represent a true reduction in CO2 emissions, what the appropriate reference level should be, and if a REDD+ program in one place might lead to increased deforestation in another — what economists refer to as “leakage.”

Those potential issues have led some researchers and activists to write off REDD+ as a failed strategy. They’ve also led to pressing questions ahead of the 2019 climate conference in Chile this December about whether REDD+ programming should continue.

Apart from the technical problems listed above, one of the most significant criticisms has been that REDD+ encourages land grabbing. That is, wealthy people will look to buy up sections of forest, often with little regard for customary indigenous rights to the land in question, because the carbon the trees contain would earn them interest income.

But Overman and his colleagues assert that national-scale REDD+ would do away with that incentive because the credits are not in the standing forest itself, just as no one is getting paid for the normal, natural CO2 capture by the algae in their territorial waters. The credits would come from lowering the historical amount of emissions emitted by a country. Owners of forested land would instead be penalized by the loss of REDD+ income if they cut down those trees.

The rainforest in Guyana. Image by Han Overman.

The 1 percent problem

Another major criticism of REDD+ is that it can’t possibly compete financially with the windfalls from commercial uses of the forests, such as logging and gold mining. Yes, Overman says, the profits from these industries appear “massive.” But he and his colleagues argue that the vast majority of these profits typically end up in the hands of a relative few inside a country like Guyana and in the coffers of companies from abroad that operate there.

Overman contends that this “business-as-usual” scenario is ripe for change in which both the owner of the forest — in this case, Guyanese society — and the laborers working on the ground could reap a larger share of the net profits from the extraction of valuable commodities like gold and timber from the forest.

The researchers say they believe that exposing these inequalities to national society might touch off a groundswell of change.

“Disclosing the sheer amount of money developing country societies miss out on” — for the first time, the authors contend — “would form a real, economically motivated engine towards improvement and should be capable of breaking down the powerful business-as-usual interests,” Overman said.

By the team’s calculations, private companies earn $99 for every $1 that goes to the state from gold mining, which levels forest. The ratio is even higher, about 1,200 to 1, for timber. That means that before a Guyanese citizen nets a single dollar from their nation’s gold and wood resources, the average supply chain-link owner will have collected a net $2.5 million from gold mining and $20 million from timber, according to Overman.

“Would you be OK if a stranger shows up with a ladder, collects all 1,200 fruits, damages half your tree in the process, and with a ‘see you next year’ on his way out tosses you one fruit for your troubles?” he said.

Their analysis shows that Guyana loses more money per hectare from clearing the forest for mining or logging in terms of lost REDD+ income than it currently earns through the fees, royalties and taxes it collects from commercial timber and gold ventures. This disparity holds even at the bargain-basement price of $5 per metric ton of CO2.

Intact forest around Guyana’s Kaieteur Falls, the world’s largest single-drop waterfall. Image by Han Overman.

‘Cleaning profit chains

The researchers’ analysis also extended to the take-home pay earned by the people involved in harvesting timber or extracting gold from the earth. Most of the revenue from logging ends up in the pockets of a few people who own links higher up the supply chain. Many others involved in harvesting timber or mining gold — “ground links,” as Overman and his colleagues refer to them — struggle to get by. That inequity leads to a cascade of effects that maintains the status quo.

Take the chainsaw operators working in Guyana for these companies, for example.

They make $20 on a cubic meter of wood, while the total net profits are around $1,200.

“They make just $20 of the total $1,200 net profits on a cubic meter of wood, resulting in a marginal existence,” Overman said. “To keep their perhaps-growing families alive, they will log what they can, twice as much as if they’d make $40 per cubic meter.”

These small ground link margins maintain the flow of timber, as well as gold, beef and other commodities, flowing up the supply chain to the consumer and ultimately providing a hefty payday for those at the top. The continual need for loggers, miners and ranchers to clear trees to feed their families also potentially puts them at odds with indigenous communities, who typically have a different view of how the forest should be used.

These conditions, Overman said, make it difficult to change the system. If the government tries to overhaul the supply chain, say, by levying new taxes or introducing new controls, it’s likely to hurt the people on the ground the most. That could touch off protests, he said, and could be “political suicide” for any elected official who attempts such interventions. Media coverage of the struggles those ground links face also leads to little public support for such policy plans. The result is policies that largely leave things as they are, with little environmental and social progress in the tropics, while these powerful, business-as-usual interests become further entrenched.

Calculations showing the share of net profits from deforestation and forest degradation in Guyana. Image courtesy of Overman et al., 2019.

Exposing the unequal sharing of profits in these industries as they currently exist could lead the citizens of Guyana to demand what Overman and his colleagues call “cleaning profit chains.” That, in turn, could benefit the country’s forests. While not directly induced by REDD+, if people on the ground are given a greater share of the net profits from forest uses, it’s conceivable that they won’t have to clear as much forest to meet their financial needs.

Similarly, if the government gets a larger share, it could use those funds to better manage its forests, reduce the environmental impacts of gold mining, root out corruption, and improve law enforcement to stop the flow of smuggled commodities out of the country. Particularly helpful will be obtaining near-real-time, remote sensing of any new forest cover gaps down to a resolution of 1 square meter, which Norway is making available to tropical forest nations. Such measures could decrease the amount of carbon emitted by deforestation and forest degradation.

Public awareness of current profit-sharing, upcoming REDD+ income losses from these sectors’ emissions, and potential attainable income from implementing measures “hits every citizen in his wallet,” he added, hence generating a strong economic motivation across society to change the way forests are governed. When society has a greater share of the profits, the country is more apt to control forest exploitation and avoid the dreaded boom and bust potential that comes with economies based on natural resources, he said.

Overman points out that his team’s analysis merely provides information about how Guyana’s forest resources are being used and who’s benefiting. It’s up to the people from countries such as Guyana to decide whether to act on this information.

Researchers working in other countries could replicate the work that Overman and his colleagues have done for Guyana, he added.

Overman said he sees the approach as a manifestation of the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) principle often applied to the use of indigenous-held land and forests. But in this case, it’s FPIC for the entire society of a given country, “so they understand what’s happening in the finances of their forests,” he said. “If they decide to act on it, it might be very helpful, for them economically, for indigenous rights, forest and biodiversity conservation, and for reducing emissions, to mitigate climate change.”

Banner image of Kaieteur Falls in Guyana by Han Overman.

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


Overman, H., Butt, N., Cummings, A. R., Luzar, J. B., & Fragoso, J. M. (2018). National REDD+ Implications for Tenured Indigenous Communities in Guyana, and Communities’ Impact on Forest Carbon Stocks. Forests9(5), 231. doi:10.3390/f9050231

Overman, H., Cummings, A. R., Luzar, J. B., & Fragoso, J. M. (2019). National REDD outcompetes gold and logging: The potential of cleaning profit chains. World Development118, 16–26. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2019.02.010

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