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Politics and the Language of REDD+

Sieren Ernst's picture
Ethics & Environment

Sieren Ernst is the co-founder and CEO of the Climate Cost Project, a data and documentary non-profit focused on bringing to light the immediate costs of climate change to American communities....

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redd+ and deforestation

“For the moment you start to discussion some enteral principle or another, you are not arguing, you are fighting. That eternal principle censors out all the objections, isolates the issue from its background and its context, and sets going in you some strong emotion, appropriate enough to the principle, highly inappropriate to the docks, warehouses, and real estate. And having started in that mode you cannot stop. A real danger exists. To meet it you have to invoke more absolute principles in order to defend what is open to attack. Then you have to defend the defenses, erect buffers, and buffers for buffers, until the whole affairs is so scrambled that it seems less dangerous to fight than to keep on talking.”

-Walter Lipmann, Public Opinion

Jerry Brown didn’t show up to last week at the ceremony where he was to receive the Blue-Green Alliance’s “Right Stuff” award. But who did? A crowd of protestors condemning the Governor for his support of REDD+ through the Governor’s Climate and Forest Task Force and the possible inclusion of REDD+ projects into California’s emissions trading scheme. Speaking outside the Blue-Agree Alliance award ceremony, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, Tom Goldtooth called REDD+ bad for the climate, environment, human rights, Californians, and the economy. The controversy has had some impact on the state of California, which has decided to avoid the sticky wicket of climate finance by sidestepping the issue all together and setting no clear timelines in which REDD+ will be accepted into the California’s Emission Trading System.

All of this happened as the Climate Policy Initiative released its report stating that climate finance dipped to $US 359 billion dollars a year in 2012 from $US 364 billion in 2011. Between the lack of political will in the developed world, and anger about REDD+ in the developing world, there is much question about whether the past six years of efforts to develop a REDD+ regime will every amount to anything. If REDD+ does wind down with a whimper, will it be a loss major loss for climate finance, or just another near miss for the developing world?

What is REDD+?

At this point, the uninitiated in the acronym-overloaded nexus of climate and development finance might be forgiven for asking, ‘what on Earth is REDD+ anyway?’ And it is a question both sides of the REDD+ debated might do well to revisit.

Last week, Steve Zwick of Ecosystem’s Marketplace published an article asking why the mainstream media always gets REDD+ wrong. Just days later, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) released the results of a media study concluding that the ‘causes of deforestation are getting lost in REDD+ rhetoric.’ Has a jungle of jargon overgrown all lucid discussion of conservation finance?

The ‘REDD’ in REDD+ stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation with the ‘F’ for elided to allow for ‘REDD’ which has pithy, homonymic ‘REDD’ quality that is still too reductive to encompass the diversity of solutions for forest loss, a problem dealt with by sticking a ‘+’ to represent, ‘the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.’ The result looks mathematical, but lacks precision.

The emissions reducing activities that might fall under the REDD+ rubric would include, but not be limited to, governance programs encouraging the devolution of land rights to indigenous groups, establishment of conservation areas, sustainable forest management including selective harvesting of trees, establishment of agroforestry projects, payments for ecosystems services through international development funds, payments through ecosystems services through market mechanisms, voluntary conservation payments, commercial agricultural intensification, disbursement of efficient cook stoves to limit wood harvesting, establishment of alternative industries for forest dwellers to prevent clear cutting, training of local police forces to prevent deforestation, establishment and training in remote monitoring and mobile technology to improve policing and detection. These activities are being carried out in about thirty countries.

The existence of a signal word for all of this creates in environment in which not just newcomers, but sometimes also experts are able to effortlessly reduce, forget, or simply never learn the nuances of a about a deeply complex topic that cross cuts, technology, ecology, finance, sociology, finance and politics.

Good or Bad?

In his article in The Huffington Post, Steve Zwick reacted to implications, often employed by REDD+ opponents that the profits and markets are necessarily bad, but in his defense of REDD+ also employs condemnation-by-syllogisms in branding REDD+ opponents ‘ideologues.’ Zwick holds up one example of a particularly bad project, given too much attention by the mainstream press, and rightly says that it is unfair to pain REDD+ with such a broad brush. This is true, but it is by the same incorrect to paint all of the opposition as ideologues.

The charge ignores real instances where, in the name of conservation, of indigenous groups are excluded from their land and livelihood. However, the occurrence of problems does not imply a general principal by which all of the activities known ‘REDD+’, or their potential good. As stated above, the diversity of activities and geographies involved in REDD+ is so great that it can only be evaluated, praised and criticized on a project by project or jurisdiction by jurisdiction basis.

The Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified deforestation as 18% percent of global emissions, and set off in earnest all of the groundwork on scaling up financing for preventing deforestation that has taken place over the past six years. The problems of weak land rights for indigenous groups or insufficient financing for conservation are not new, and long predate the REDD+ framework, but the increased attention that has come to forests along with a heightened awareness of the role that they play in climate change has heightened increased government, multilateral and civil society attention and conflict on these issues.

The conflict is over important issues—self-governance, environmental preservation, and climate stabilization—are significant to  everyone on Earth. It is logical that the increasing the financial stakes for forestry will increase the risk of corruption and mishandling of assets. At the same, the amount of money required to halt deforestation is enormous. The advances that could be enabled increased cash flows into forestry REDD+, including remote detection and monitoring, development of alterative fuel sources, and agricultural intensification will need to be financed, and the amount of money required is far great than the small sums currently being spent. It is hard to see where this money will come from without the support of the private sector. But in order for this process to be overseen, proponents will have to be clear about benefits and abuses. In order to do this, stopping speaking about REDD+ as if it where one thing would be a start.

Photo Credit: REDD+ and Deforestation/shutterstock

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Thank Sieren for the Post!
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Sieren Ernst's picture
Sieren Ernst on Nov 20, 2013

Hi Steve, 

Thanks so much for taking the time to read, comment, and clarify your position, and also for your kind words on my article. I agree with you regarding Nilsson–it is a terrible example that has received disproportionate outside attention. At a very least, if a news outlet wanted to focus on this, there are other, better-run projects that should have been covered for the sake of balance and responsible journalism. 


Kind regards,



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