• Opinion
  • August 30, 2019
  • 11 minutes
  • 0

Forests are cheap to cut and costly to lose — so what can policymakers do?

Opinion: We have an alternative to deforestation, if we can scale it

This opinion article was written by Alice Van der Elstraeten, KM Specialist, UN-REDD Programme. For more like this, see our environmental policy newsfeed. 

Every second we lose the equivalent of one football field of forest. The rate of deforestation is truly alarming, not least because forests are one of our best bets for how to fight climate change.

Forests are a key nature-based solution in the global fight against climate change because of their unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon.

At the moment, forests capture one third of all Co2 released by burning fossil fuels.

And according to recent research, nature-based solutions could provide up to 37% of the solution to the climate crisis if we stop deforestation and restore damaged forests. Awareness of the need for forest action has never been greater, nor has the ability to deliver transformative change.

Some of the main drivers of deforestation are cattle farming and the clearing of forests for palm oil and soy plantations, and these remain a continuous threat to the protection of forests and their sustainable management.

An alternative to deforestation

Forests cover about 30% of the total land mass of the Earth and over 1.5 billion people around the world rely on them for food, shelter, fresh water and traditional medicine.

Over 300 million people live in forests, including 60 million indigenous peoples, who see their forests slowly disappearing.

Threats to forests come from many angles such as illegal logging, forest fires, fuelwood harvesting, agricultural expansion, unsustainable livestock ranching, infrastructure and last but not least the pressure of an ever growing population. While cutting trees generates substantial financial profits, forest communities often see little profit in conservation. It is this mismatch that the UN-REDD Programme seeks to mitigate.

Recognising the need to protect and expand our forests, REDD+ is one of the most important nature-based solutions to emerge in recent years.

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.

It is a voluntary climate change mitigation mechanism developed by Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries and arose from initial discussions at the COP11 in Montreal in 2005.

REDD+ goes hand in hand with policies that provide alternative incomes for forest dependent communities or increase their yields through the use of sustainable agricultural practices, such as applying agroforestry, to avoid further deforestation. These programs have already been successful in countries such as Vietnam, Nigeria and in other countries around the world.

Pillars for a more sustainable planet

REDD+ has four elements – known as the Warsaw Pillars, named after the UNFCCC meeting there in 2013 – which countries must meet to receive results-based payments. These do not have to be achieved in any particular order, but all must be in place for a country to qualify.

  1. National strategy or action plan: A road map developed by the country, detailing how they will reduce carbon emissions related to deforestation and forest degradation. The road map can be amended if necessary.
  2. National forest monitoring system: A system established by the country to monitor their forests using remote sensing and/or ground-based approaches to monitor REDD+ activities and estimate forest carbon stocks, forest-related greenhouse gas emissions and changes in forest area.
  3. Forest reference emission level or forest reference level: These are the baseline levels of forest sector greenhouse gas emissions against which a country’s REDD+ performance will be assessed. These must be established and then submitted to and approved by the UNFCCC.
  4. Safeguards information system: A system established by the country to ensure that REDD+ risks, such as exclusion of stakeholder groups in decision making processes, are mitigated. There are seven safeguards that must be addressed as guided by the UNFCCC Cancun Agreements.

Over the past 10 years, the UN-REDD Programme supported national governments to comply with the REDD+ pillars and to develop sustainable forest management models in a participatory and innovative way by creating synergies between government, civil society and the private sector to ensure amplification and scaling up.

(A morning view of a tropical rainforest in Papua New Guinea. Picture credit: Mairi Feeger for UN REDD)

Launched in 2008, the UN-REDD Programme is the first joint global initiative of the United Nations on climate change and builds on the convening role and technical expertise of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Working with 65 partner countries across Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean, the Programme helps countries develop the capacities needed to meet the UNFCCC’s REDD+ requirements. We do so through a country-based approach that provides advisory and technical support services tailored to national circumstances and needs.

Payments for results

The first round of results-based payments are now being disbursed to countries for their successful protection of local forests.

A milestone was reached in February 2019 when Brazil’s submission for REDD+ results-based payments was approved by the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the country received $96.5 million for halting deforestation during the years 2014 and 2015. This was the world’s first example of results-based payments through a globally accessible multilateral fund, as envisaged when the REDD+ discussions began under the UNFCCC over 10 years ago. In July 2019 Ecuador followed. More countries are preparing to receive the results-based payments for which the GCF has earmarked $500 million USD from donor countries.

While significant progress has been made in the last 10 years, further work is needed in order to raise forest ambitions in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), incorporate forest actions in national development and climate action plans and ensure the protection of the forests as a key nature-based solution.

Several countries are now complying with the REDD+ pillars and will enter a new phase of result-based payments, with new experiences, successes and challenges. Other countries have matured their sustainability approach, but still have to go that one last mile to meet the UNFCCC requirements. Continuing to provide technical assistance to countries that are working to meet the four pillars and ensuring the sustainability of REDD+ in countries will increase the number of countries that can access results-based payments. Seeing a return on the long term investment of forest protection will increase the willingness to support these actions among all stakeholder groups.

Roadmap for the future

As part of the UN-REDD programme a lot of lessons have been learned about how to preserve our forests, and we publish our reflections on our website and the UN-REDD collaborative workspace . The collaborative workspace brings together over 12.000 documents on the topic of REDD+ that can be browsed in the library or discovered per thematic topic.

Based on our years of experience an e-learning course was developed to dive deeper into the matter of REDD+ , sharing knowledge and insights on the accomplishment of the four REDD+ pillars, including approaches to finance and stakeholder engagement.

There are still many challenges ahead.

Tackling drivers for deforestation such as rising global demand for soft commodities such as palm oil, coffee, cocoa, soy, and beef will remain a challenge since they are beyond the control of REDD+ programmes and require other innovative solutions. However, working closely with the private sector to provide solutions to make agricultural production more sustainable and deforestation free remains an important area of work for the Programme.

With the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation on the agenda of at least 65 countries, and with those countries enabled to make better informed decisions on forest protection, a lot has been accomplished already.

Increased results-based payments and a significantly higher carbon price would provide major incentives for scaling up forest protection. Given the urgency of the fight against climate change and the centrality of forests as natural climate solution REDD+ holds a strong position in offering proven and cost effective solutions. Now it’s up to all of us to deliver on that potential. — Alice Van der Elstraeten

(Picture credit: Mairi Feeger and Cory Wright for UN REDD)


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