Delegates at the UN’s climate change meeting in South Africa are battling to agree on a plan to pay poor countries not to cut down their forests, with some claiming that profits are being put first.
The REDD programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) or its big brother REDD+ was created to offer financial incentives for developing countries to preserve their forests and instead invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.The UN estimates financial flows of up to $30bn could come from REDD and related initiatives.
Put simply, REDD means richer nations paying poorer nations not to cut down their forests (and thereby limit carbon emissions) by allocating a financial value to those standing forests.
Put less simply, the UN says that REDD is a “cutting-edge forestry initiative that aims at tipping the economic balance in favour of sustainable management of forests so that their formidable economic, environmental and social goods and services benefit countries, communities, biodiversity and forest users while also contributing to important reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”
Supporters of the programme say it will be less expensive than other climate initiatives such as carbon capture and fuel switching.
The UN calculates that deforestation and degradation is responsible for 17 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The aim for the immensely complex REDD programme was to provide a way to increase living standards in developing nations without creating the amount of environmental damage seen when Western countries became industrialised.
But the scheme has proved to be highly controversial.
Environmentalists working with indigenous people in forested areas say local people are being removed from their land by companies who are keen to profit from the money being offered by the scheme. They say the benefits for such people are minimal.
Winnie Overbeek from the World Rainforest Movement told Reuters: “REDD+ is about making more profit, continuing pollution and disrespecting the rights of forest people all over the world. It’s about land grabbing,” he warned.
“It’s time to stop thinking about REDD+ and start protecting local populations and their land rights.”
And those concerns are shared by groups such as Friends of the Earth.
In a 2010 report, the charity said its analysis of countries where REDD had been hastily rolled out showed that REDD’s green credentials were being undermined by the involvement of “carbon traders, big international conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs), plantation companies and even oil and gas companies seeking an attractive and topical green veneer for their activities.”
It also expressed concerns that the quality of the projects varies enormously with some being more thoughtfully designed while for others the motivation appears to be profit.
Other concerns are that the scheme lets richer nations off the hook in terms of their carbon reduction responsibilities, a claim the UN rejects: “The implementation of REDD+ must co-exist with significant emission reductions in both developed and developing countries if we hope to curb climate change.”
The development of REDD and its associated projects is just one of the issues on the agenda at Durban and more talking needs to be done to resolve the wrinkles in the rather labyrinthine programme.
Developing countries often have very good reasons for cutting down trees – for global trade and domestic consumption in industries such as house-building and furniture-making.
Although there is plenty of confidence that there is the germ of a good idea in REDD, given the scale of the problems it raises, do not expect an unequivocal green light for REDD when the sun goes down on Durban 2011.