Forest Carbon Asia Articles

Whither REDD+ after Doha? New realities for forest advocates Observations from UNFCCC COP 18

Articles - By Andrea Tuttle on Jan 30, 2013


Is Doha the final stop for REDD+ negotiations? Where does REDD+ stand now and where does it go from here? What is its role in the proposed Landscape day? Andrea Tuttle, long-standing REDD observer at the COPs explores the fate and future of REDD+ including one critical unresolved issue….


Bedouins and scholars traditionally met under the shade of the Sidra tree, now the symbol of the sprawling Qatar National Convention Center. Thousands of delegates and advocates met here in December for the eighteenth year of UN climate negotiations, still in search of a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


Now the delegates are home and observers look back at the outcomes. Frustration is deep: the ambition of the meeting falls behind the pace of climate change. Projections of future emissions call for commitments much broader than the Kyoto Protocol, and the money promised to spur low-carbon growth in developing countries remains elusive and distrusted. Voluntary emission cuts by countries are encouraging, but fall short of what is needed to limit warming.  Meanwhile the reshuffling of committees and a 2020 “launch date” offer little comfort.  In all, the current framing of the negotiations is discouraging, especially as climate change now impacts real people in real places.


Doha was marked by low expectations from the start. The usual flashpoint challenging the UN consensus process was swept aside without discussion. Even the traditional call to action by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was omitted from the opening speeches.


Shifting sands around forests


The usual excitement around forests, a dependable bright spot in recent years, also failed to deliver.  Not only was this the first Conference of the Parties (COP) not to agree on a Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) negotiating issue on Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, plus conservation, the sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks (REDD+) (concerning verification)(1) –  but Doha also marked the closing of Forest Day, the foremost rallying point for forest advocates that has brought them to COPs for the past 6 years.


A number of omens seem to be coming together, all pointing to a major shift in REDD-plus’ prominence in the climate arena. In the 5 years from Bali to Durban we’ve become accustomed to REDD+ as a COP high point, driven by a commitment that carbon emissions from forest loss are too large to ignore.  The complexity of bringing forests into a global climate strategy has attracted the best minds to a rich scientific and intellectual debate.  REDD+ has stimulated more widespread understanding of the social and environmental importance of forests than any other traditional sustainable forest management program.  The education fueled by REDD+ of people who never before had a reason to learn is remarkable – my favorite example is the staid investment banker explaining to his colleagues the importance of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).


REDD+ has stimulated almost every dimension of forest activity: real-time satellite tracking of global forest loss; local communities using handheld data devices; long-simmering disputes over forest ownership and use; methods for benefit sharing; nested accounting to meld project and national approaches; the role of women in forest stewardship; the place for certification and reduced impact logging; enticements of billions from donors; open discussion of illegal timber trade and corruption; public platforms for indigenous groups to command large audiences, and many more … the exponential interest in REDD+ has been tremendous. Both locally and globally, each time a problem has been raised a rush of responses has emerged.


The language of the COP text is the product of this intensity. In a practical sense, the Cancun agreement on REDD-Plus(2) incorporates all the main elements needed by a country to proceed.  The remaining technical details are important, but not so fundamental that a country cannot get started with REDD program design if it wants to, especially given the flexibility allowed for national circumstances.  In response to such a question, the veteran REDD negotiator, Dr. Tony La Viña, advised that yes, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process has gone about as far as can be expected in giving guidance on REDD+ methods; it is now in the hands of countries to take it from here, should they choose.


The opening presentation at Forest Day 6 by Dr. Peter Holmgren, CIFOR’s new Director General, reaffirms this reality.  “The goal of Forest Day was to put forests on the COP agenda, and that mission has been accomplished”. And now Forest Day is terminated, to be morphed into an expanded Landscape Day.


Are these COPs then still the place to talk about REDD+? 


The carbon that brought forests to the climate table is now mostly relegated to backroom technical discussions at SBSTA.  The fight to ensure that negotiators know “forests are more than sticks of carbon” appears to have been won, at least as judged from the list of social factors included in the Cancun text.Indeed, the word “carbon” was practically absent from Doha’s Forest Day and the forest side sessions.  Starting with the compelling outcry of indigenous peoples at Poznan, the focus of side events at all subsequent COPs has largely turned to the social and governance dimensions of forests, examining different REDD+ bottlenecks from country to country.


Of course the question is facetious: if not the COPs to talk about REDD+, then where? But it may be time for stocktaking as to which topics are really most important for the limited time at a climate COP.  The broadening of the conversation on forests beyond carbon has been absolutely necessary since “there are no carbon gains from REDD+ until X is solved” — where X represents all the thorny issues that prevent a particular country from administering a credible REDD program, such as disputes over tenure, uncertain governance and technical capacity, and competition between food and forest.In essence, REDD+has been asked to sort out all issues of sustainable development and equity that have plagued the forestry sector for decades, before it can begin its job of reducing emissions.


Dr. Holmgren reinforces the divide between the carbon role of forests and their place in sustainable development:“Using forests to offset human-induced climate change is an admirable aim, and it is likely that other forestry objectives, such as conserving biological diversity, would benefit from this as well. But this focus has become almost myopic. We must not neglect the greater potential of forestry to contribute to questions of economic and human development.”(3)


So if sustainability, equity, governance and human development are reclaiming their place as the dominant concern within the forest community, then is the Framework Convention on Climate Change really the best place to conduct the discussion? There are already 14 other forest-related international organizations under the umbrella of the “Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF)” that have the mission to “promote sustainable management of all types of forests and to strengthen long-term political commitment to this end.” 


Logically it would seem the bulk of discussions regarding the “X” issues of REDD+ought to be re-invigorated within their more traditional CPF venues, which would allow more opportunities for advocates to debate their issues in a forum dedicated to them.  The Cancun text has laid out the basic elements, now it seems time for CPF entities to take up the logistics to broaden participation for those aspects of REDD+ that challenge its implementation in countries. If meetings were regional,more groups could participate, distill the findings pertinent to climate goals, and bring them back to inform the UNFCCC negotiators. The side events at the climate COPs would retain the climate focus, and serve as the forum for reporting successes and bottlenecks of REDD+relative to negotiation text, and for presenting case studies of climate adaptation and resilience.


What’s left for REDD+in the Climate negotiations?


The remaining REDD-related tasks for climate negotiators at the COPs mostly involve aspects broader than the forest community.  In part they relate to procedures to provide overall transparency and accountability,comparable to and interconnected with the registries and verification being discussed for Nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs) and other country commitments. They also include the biggest elephant in the room –how the rules for “new market mechanisms” will be formulated according to the Durban Platform(4).


The pricing of carbon and the role of carbon markets has consistently been one of the most contentious items on the COP agendas, with pro- and anti-market advocates mustering fierce arguments for their respective viewpoints. This is especially true for REDD+ where beliefs run deep between utter rejection of “pricing nature,” versus the embrace of the efficiencies and behaviors that well-regulated markets can incentivize.


Somewhat more agreement is found in the realization that if REDD+ is to deliver significant carbon gains at all, then some form of external funding is needed. Unless funding is available, why should a developing country forgo forest conversion and agricultural expansion for the good of the planet on its own?  If enforced, regulations that ban forest conversion could provide an effective way to reduce deforestation, but why should a developing country adopt those unilaterally unless somehow compensated for the global benefit provided?  Money alone won’t solve all problems of REDD+, but carbon gains will be few without it.


The discussion of REDD+ funding options has spanned the gamut of pure donor models to markets, with various combinations targeted to different purposes.  Perhaps the biggest weakness of Forest Day has been the near absence of education for the gathered forest audience regarding options for REDD+ finance, most importantly including the financial safeguards that advocates should insist upon, parallel to the attention paid to social safeguards.  Most of the substantive discussion on REDD+ finance has not taken place in the usual forest events but rather in the sessions of the research institutions, the emissions traders,the multi-lateral banks and some development agencies.


While forest advocates often cite abuses by carbon cowboys and risks of market corruption, few speak with authority on the financial safeguards that would need to be in place as prerequisites before any new market mechanisms of Durban are implemented(5).  Cancun calls for “…Ensuring good governance and robust market functioning and regulation”.  Durban calls for defining “…a new market-based mechanism… to enhance the cost-effectiveness of, and to promote, mitigation actions….”   REDD+ is very much on the table here and interested parties are submitting position statements(6).  It would seem the forest audience should be at least as well armed and informed here as they have been in formulating the rest of the REDD text.


Whither Landscape Day?


In sum, the deserts of Doha did have a startling outcome – unexpectedly for forests.  It became clear that the place of forests in the UNFCCC agenda is transitioning from development of methods internal to forests, to a broader focus on transparency of implementation and funding of climate actions in many sectors.  The closure of Forest Day underscores the transition, but leaves an unsettling concern.  The forum that has produced such amazing results in shining the spotlight on forests, illuminating their fascinating complexity and global importance to a public that had never before been exposed to it, is suddenly dimming the light. 


Yet the conversion of Forest Day to Landscape Day offers a new range of possibilities if its goals can be clarified.Is the goal to influence UNFCCC negotiations in some way by providing new perspectives, and will climate and adaptation remain as organizing themes?  If so, then the landscape perspective offers a bigger framework for examining the realities of competing land uses and tradeoffs, where gains in one sector, e.g. agriculture and urban growth come at the expense of another, e.g. forest.  Topics can examine low-carbon rural development strategies, ridge-to-reef adaptation plans, reduced emissions from agricultural practices, vertical cultivation and agro-forestry, Land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) accounting frameworks and so on.


If, however, Landscape Day weakens the link to climate because that’s too “myopic”, then the UNFCCC forum is a questionable match.  As compelling as rural development issues may be, the interests of the audience gathered at a climate COP should be respected.


Whatever the path it takes, Landscape Day could still appease the forest advocates in the crowd by maintaining one track on the agenda that keeps the pulse on REDD+. It needs to take on the same energy to capture the audience and educate the negotiation process as Forest Day did. We encourage the effort and hope the change will result in new discoveries, “aha” awakenings and useful outcomes to build on the achievements to date.




(2) The Cancun text:


(4) See Durban Decision paragraphs 79-86:

(5) For examples of safeguards for a Cap-and-Trade system, see California Air Resources Board

(6) See Example:Environmental Defense Fund


Andrea Tuttle, Ph.D., has attended UNFCCC COPs since 2007 as an observer for the Pacific Forest Trust, a policy think tank and land trust dedicated to keeping forest lands as forest.  She has worked on sustainable forest management and climate policy in Southeast Asia and is a former Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.




Keywords: Asia, COP, COP 18, deforestation, financing, Forest, IPCC, LULUCF, MRV, NAMA, REDD, SBSTA, UNFCCC


  • In Indonesia are 50% of the world’s peat swamp forests, and they absorb 30% of the world’s carbon. So Indonesia’s peat swamp forests are definitely a priority to save.

    [ Reply ]
    • John

      …and a priority for the country to exploit in order to speed up ‘economic growth.
      … and an extremely apetising piece of cake for the businessmen and financial markets to chew on

      [ Reply ]
  • Samuel Nnah

    Very good analysis!

    [ Reply ]

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