Since it was introduced in 2007, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) has become the dominant forest policy around the world, impacting forest-dependent communities in countries with tropical forests in particular. The experience of the past 15 years has shown an overwhelming record of REDD’s catastrophic failure to address deforestation and forest degradation – and worse: it has also intensified the climate crisis and left the causes of deforestation untouched. REDD, in fact, has become an underlying cause of deforestation and climate change itself.
At the beginning of 2023 World Rainforest Movement published a dossier of 103 pages prepared by a pool of authors, which from its title points an accusing finger: 15 Years of REDD: A Mechanism rotten to the Core. This publication is available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Indonesian. This work was made possible through the contributions from Misereor/KZE (Germany), the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (Sida) through the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC), and Bread for All from Switzerland.
REDD has dominated international forest policy for the past 15 years with the promise of making trees more valuable standing than cut down and in doing so, provide a rapid and cheap way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. REDD has undoubtedly failed to reduce large-scale deforestation.
Yet, focussing on the obvious failure of REDD, provides an incomplete picture of its damaging legacy. REDD is the abbreviation in English for ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’. The starting point for REDD was the assumption that offering financial rewards will convince those responsible for destroying forests to drop their plans; in exchange for the REDD payment, they would protect the forest instead. REDD would thus make the trees worth more standing than cut down and in doing so, provide a rapid and cheap way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
For REDD proponents, all that was needed to end deforestation, was an offer of financial rewards to protect, not destroy. But the companies that pocket billions from turning forests into oil palm or soy plantations, cattle pastures or destroying them for mines, hydroelectric reservoirs, highways and other infrastructure, were not interested in REDD.
Some were not interested, because they could still earn much more if they continued to destroy forests. Anyone “who responds to purely economic incentives would opt for palm oil,” as the pro-REDD group Ecosystem Market Place already wrote in 2014.
Others were not interested because their deforestation was illegal. Which company was going to apply for REDD payments, saying it would be willing to drop plans to illegally destroy forests?
There were also those who engaged in deforestation mainly as a way of claiming ownership to land, or strengthening their ownership claims. To this group, the promise of REDD payments was of little interest because their primary motivation to clear land was not immediate financial profit.
15 years on, the concept introduced into the UN climate negotiations with the promise that it would lead to rapid and cheap reduction of emissions from tropical forest destruction, has failed to drive down large-scale deforestation. In countries like Brazil, Peru or the Democratic Republic of Congo, deforestation has even been rising since REDD was introduced. This failure of REDD to reduce deforestation has been widely documented.
A recent study on the effectiveness of German government funding for REDD explains why REDD success stories nonetheless abound: a “downward adjustment of expectations” about what REDD was to achieve has allowed proponents of REDD to construct “seemingly positive effects in the context of the instrument’s limited appeal.” The price for this adjustment: “diluting the broader goal of stopping deforestation.”
Focussing only on the obvious failure of REDD to help bring down forest loss, however, seems to present an incomplete picture of the instrument’s damaging legacy. REDD is not a failure for everyone. REDD has not failed for those who used it as a tool to increase control over land cultivated by forest-dependent communities. The story that ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture is destroying the forest; that peasant farming is causing deforestation and that forest peoples’ cultivation practises need to be ‘modernized’ is – despite being false and reinforcing colonial patterns of domination – even more widely accepted today than it was 15 years ago.
What’s more: because almost all REDD activities focus on changing how peasants and forest peoples use forests, not on large-scale deforestation, corporate destruction has been made less visible as a result of REDD. REDD, and particularly its latest incarnation called ‘nature-based solutions’ (NbS) or ‘nature climate solutions’, also did not fail the fossil fuel industry. REDD has provided an excuse for this industry to continue to destroy the underground carbon stores that are at the core of both, their business model and climate breakdown.
With REDD, and now NbS, oil, coal and fossil gas companies claim that they can continue their profitable destruction without damaging the climate. All they have to do is pay someone who claims to be saving carbon elsewhere. Airlines, mining companies, agroindustries, fertilizer and food corporations, among others, have also enlisted REDD as a strategy to maintain the capitalist model of fossil fuel-dependent modes of production and consumption from which they profit.
The reality, however, is that it is impossible to compensate the climate impact that is caused when carbon is released from underground carbon deposits which have taken millions of years to form. Pretending that such compensation can be achieved through paying for REDD activities such as planting more trees or avoiding allegedly planned deforestation, is a dangerous illusion. By nurturing that illusion, REDD helps delay unavoidable discussions about ending fossil fuel burning, and in doing so, becomes itself a driver of climate breakdown.
Last but not least, consulting firms, international conservation NGOs and think tanks all have benefited from industrialized countries and philanthropies’ generous REDD funding programmes and corporate carbon offset purchases. Specialized REDD sales agencies, private sector REDD project owners, certification standard developers and auditing companies, too, have carved out a lucrative niche for themselves. For them, REDD has not been a failure either.