Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Response to Foreign Affairs REDD+ Article

by Duncan Gromko

Source: Catedral Verde
Foreign Affairs published an article on deforestation in the Amazon and REDD+ (reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation) in their most recent issue. I was torn. On the one hand, I was thrilled because a popular and respected journal was covering two issues that I believe are important and don't get enough attention. On the other hand, the article just isn't very good and doesn't seriously engage the issues. There are a lot of nuances to these two issues, but the article just glosses over them. I'll go over four problems I saw, from least to most important.

First, and most pettily, it's REDD+, not REDD as Jeff Tollefson, the author, writes. That "+" may seem small, but including it is a big deal as it means that carbon payments can flow for afforestation and reforestation (planting trees) and not just avoided deforestation. Writing "REDD" makes me think that Mr. Tollefson is not familiar with the topic.

Second, the article paints a slightly rosy picture of deforestation in the Amazon. Yes, there are great signs that the situation is improving and there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. Huge strides have been made and a lot of credit goes to the Brazilian government. However, the latest deforestation data from the Amazon points to large increases in deforestation compared to last year. How could he not mention this fact?

Third, at times Mr. Tollefson conflates decreases in deforestation in the Amazon and REDD+ implementation:

"...good news has emerged from the Amazon. Brazil has dramatically slowed the destruction of its rain forests, reducing the rate of deforestation by 83 percent since 2004, primarily by enforcing land-use regulations, creating new protected areas, and working to maintain the rule of law in the Amazon. At the same time, Brazil has become a test case for a controversial international climate-change prevention strategy known as REDD...which places a monetary value on the carbon stored in forests."

Let's be clear here: REDD+ has not yet been implemented and is very unlikely to be implemented in the near to medium future. My best guess is it never will be implemented or at least not as originally conceived. Later in the article, Mr. Tollefson gets much closer to the truth:

"REDD remains a distant promise for most landowners and communities, and the precipitous drop in deforestation in Brazil is more a function of broader government policy than the result of any individual project."

OK, that's much better! But he also wrote:

"Brazil's preliminary experience with REDD suggests that, in addition to offering multiple benefits to forest dwellers (human and otherwise), the model can be cheap and fast: Brazil has done more to reduce emissions than any other country in the world in recent years, without breaking the bank."

Call me crazy, but Mr. Tollefson is contradicting himself. At the very least, he is seriously muddling the waters. Why did he choose to write about REDD+ and the Amazon? Many countries (that have not experienced declines in deforestation) have similar early engagement on REDD+ so it doesn't make much sense to focus on Brazil. I wish the article was about deforestation in the Amazon or REDD+, but not both.

Finally, Mr Tollefson fails to critically assess REDD+. From his largest section that brings up issues with REDD+:

"Some environmentalists and social activists worry about the validity and longevity of such credits, as well as the prospect of banks and traders entering the conservation business. One fear is that 'carbon cowboys,' a new class of entrepreneurs specializing in the development of carbon-offset projects, would sweep through forests, trampling the rights of indigenous and poor people by taking control of their lands and walking away with the profits. This concern is valid, as there is always a danger of bad actors. But civil-society groups and governments, including Brazil's, are aware of the problem and are working on safeguards. Brazilian officials have also expressed worries that the ability to simply purchase unlimited offsets would allow wealthy countries to delay the work that needs to be done to reduce their own emissions."

Saying that some environmentalists worry about REDD+ is an intentionally dismissive and misleading way of brushing aside real concerns about REDD+. You could also say that "some scientists believe in the theory of evolution" or "some tables have four legs." There are very few, if any, environmentalists or social activists who are actively engaged in REDD+ that don't have any concerns. Many may believe that these issues can be overcome or that possible problems are offset by the gains. But everyone working on this issue is critically engaged in identifying and trying to address problems! If Foreign Affairs wants to make a positive contribution to the REDD+ discussion, they would too. 

I've already written about REDD+ obstacles, so I'm not going to get deep into that again. I'd recommend this Munden Project report and this Rainforest Foundation report for anyone interested in learning about issues with REDD+. 

So...thanks Foreign Affairs, for at least publishing something on forests, but I really hope your next attempt is better.

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