UNREDD: Outsourcing environmental protection?

Forest in southern Mexico slashed and burned to create usable land for agriculture. Photo: wikimedia commons.

In 2007 the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that nearly 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation in developing countries. In response to these findings and climate change concerns, the UN created the Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) to support the efforts of developing countries in protecting resource-rich forests and reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. However effectively managing deforestation can be a struggle not only when dealing with the foresting industry, but also when trying to simultaneously support individuals who rely on forests as a main source of income and survival.

Since beginning in 2008, UN-REDD has partnered with 29 developing countries to reduce deforestation and preserve vital natural resources. Currently the programme is driven by major donor countries including Denmark, Japan, Norway, and Spain. As a part of the programme, the 29 developing countries are connected with partners in high-income countries to incentivize the reduction of forest-based carbon emissions. The REDD+ strategy is an inventive carbon credit programme where investors from high-income countries can earn emission credits by financing the protection of forests in UN-REDD countries.

In a carbon market, governments designate a limit (or cap) on the volume of greenhouse gasses that industries are allowed to emit as a way to monitor and reduce emissions. If industries exceed their allotted credits, they are heavily fined and taxed. However, industries can gain more emission credits by either trading with one another or alternatively by buying credits through investments in emission-saving projects, such as UN-REDD programmes. Currently, the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) is the largest system for trading emission credits covering 31 countries and over 11 000 industries. REDD+ strategy allows investors from the EU ETS to buy emission credits by investing in UN-REDD forest-reserve projects, benefitting the investors, the global environment, and local communities.

The most recent application of REDD+ strategy took place in Indonesia, where a peat swamp forest reserve was created that covers 80 000 hectares, which is nearly the size of Singapore. Investments have been made by the Russian energy firm Gazron and the German insurance company Allianz, who will receive emission credits that they can then sell for profit or use to reduce their own emissions. Over the next 30 years, the reserve is expected to generate 104 million credits equating to nearly 500 million euros, which will go towards funding livelihood projects in the region. In terms of the environment, this project will prevent deforestation for the purpose of palm oil production and also protect dozens of endangered species, including endangered orangutans native to the region.

Brown areas of satellite image reveal severely deforested areas between Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Photo: wikimedia commons.

Thus far, UN-REDD programmes in developing countries are slowly gaining support from high-income investors. Although the U.S. has yet to formally adopt an emissions trading system, significant strides are being made on a state-level to support the REDD+ strategy. For instance, in 2008 the then governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, became involved with the Governor’s Climate and Forest Taskforce (GCF). The GCF is partnering with 16 states and provinces from the USA, Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria to adopt a carbon credit programme in alignment with UN-REDD standards.

At the current rate, REDD+ emission credits are expected to be on California markets by 2015, which will hopefully encourage other states and provinces to follow suit. However, in September 2012, the Greenpeace criticized California’s REDD+ sub-national collaboration with Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Peru, arguing that it wastes resources on policy mechanisms unable to effectively monitor carbon. This ultimately makes matters worse by allowing industries to continue polluting without building the government and policy structures needed for enforcement of REDD+ guidelines. Furthermore, due to the ineffectiveness of sub-national projects, 194 UN countries have “overwhelmingly rejected” sub-national deforestation projects, such as the one California adopted.

Other concerns still remain over how to involve investors and simultaneously protect the rights of communities relying on UN-REDD protected-forests. Approximately 1.6 billion people in developing countries depend on forests for their livelihoods. According to the Chicago Tribune, it will take the UN-REDD and partner nations until late this year to ensure that agreements are met regarding the protection of these communities and the resources they depend on. Unfortunately, the countries with the biggest REDD+ potential are also the most risky for industry investors who want guarantees that land rights will be secured before putting down money on emission-saving projects. Additional critics of UN-REDD argue that the programme is unsustainable because it does not put pressure on developed countries to reduce their own emissions.

As new obstacles emerge, UN-REDD has taken a clear stance that in order to reduce greenhouse gas emission, the REDD+ strategy must be supported worldwide, not only in developing countries. For this to happen, UN-REDD will need to nail down an effective strategy addressing these concerns. If UN-REDD is unable to secure a worldwide strategy in the coming years it will threaten the security of existing forest-reserves, ultimately jeopardizing major strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing global climate change.


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