It is one of the first laws of diplomacy: when it is hard to agree on an answer, change the question. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) schemes are the product of two of these diplomatic back-flips.
First, whereas the Kyoto Protocol included no forestry or land-use emissions targets or mechanisms, such measures are a central feature in negotiations for a continuation or successor climate treaty. The former caution resulted from the complexity and uncertainty of accounting for reductions in these sectors, but the fact that significant measurement challenges remain has not slowed the rush to develop REDD. This new enthusiasm is largely driven by economic calculations. According to cost-benefit analyses like the influential Stern Review on The Economics of Climate Change, reducing tropical deforestation would be far cheaper than curbing fossil fuel use in the industrialised world.
A second switch concerns the framing of the question of how best to tackle deforestation. REDD puts a cash value on forests on the assumption that this will result in their preservation and, in turn, a "carbon saving." In other words, these schemes do not ask "how best might forests be protected?" but presume that carbon pricing mechanisms are the leading solution. Negotiations on REDD are then narrowed to questions of whether it is better to make forest payments through direct financial transfers or to develop forest carbon offsets. These are more often presented as a sequence, rather than a set of alternatives: almost all potential funders view their initial outlay as a means to "kick start" what will eventually be an offset scheme. The eventual extension of REDD to encompass all forms of land use is also under consideration.
The reality of REDD is likely to be far messier, more expensive and damaging than the economists claim. It will also prove fundamentally unjust - a concept that is alien to cost-benefit modelling. Indeed, the very idea that REDD offsets could be used to allow continued greenhouse emissions from industrialised countries turns the ethical responsibility for climate change upside down: it outsources responsibilities that should rest with the very countries and corporations that have disproportionately caused climate change. Such concerns are not simply ethical but practical too. Deforestation cannot be reduced to a question of cost without losing sight of the complexity of social factors and power relations that underlie why it is happening. Agriculture is at the forefront of this debate because its encroachment into previously forested areas is generally presented as the major cause of tropical deforestation.
This article will show that REDD could favour large-scale farming and do considerable damage to the lives and livelihoods of small farmers, who play a vital role in food sovereignty. REDD "readiness plans" already include plantations and perverse incentives for the conversion of forested land for export-led agriculture. As such, REDD will not necessarily reduce deforestation, but can be characterised as a form of "structural adjustment" programme for land use.
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