What is the scale of deforestation and its role in climate change?

Forests and trees store carbon. When they are degraded or completely cleared, e.g. by fire – a process referred to as deforestation – this stored carbon has the potential to be released back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and contribute to climate change.

In the last decade, the largest amounts of deforestation occurred across the humid tropics. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that around 129 million hectares of forest – almost equivalent to the area of South Africa – were lost between 1990 and 2015. Overall, the annual rate of net loss has slowed: from 0.18% in the 1990s to 0.08% (3.3 million hectares a year) from 2010 to 2015. But the area lost in 2016 was 51% higher than in the previous year, primarily due to forest fires. Other significant causes of deforestation include the clearance by agribusinesses of huge tracts of forest to make way for monoculture farms producing high-value cash crops like palm oil and soya, and for cattle ranching.

Deforestation contributes up to 10% of the carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activity, according to 2013 figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This figure rises to 15% if forest degradation (changes that negatively affect a forest’s structure or function but that do not decrease its area), and tropical peatland emissions are included. Tropical forests now emit more carbon than they capture, due to deforestation and degradation, so that they are no longer a carbon ‘sink’, according to a study published in 2017 using satellite data from 2003–14.

What is ‘REDD+’, how does it work and what are its aims?

Scientists have recognised the value of protecting forests in tackling climate change. In response, policymakers have developed a family of policies – collectively known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) – to provide a financial incentive to governments, agribusinesses and communities to maintain and possibly increase, rather than reduce forest cover. Under REDD+, incentives for forest protection are offered to countries, communities and individual landowners in exchange for slowing deforestation, and carrying out activities that promote reforestation and sustainable forest management. Where local people are properly involved in the REDD+ process it may also help alleviate rural poverty. The principles of REDD+ were further reinforced in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

REDD+ policies operate through a variety of mechanisms, including those administered by the United Nations (UN-REDD) and the World Bank (the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility). REDD+ finance is also considered in the international climate change negotiations, remains a key component of international climate finance discussions, and is often channelled through the voluntary carbon markets and via activities implemented by for- and non-profit organisations.

How fair, effective and efficient is REDD+?

While experts have demonstrated how REDD+ has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions, it is not without its problems. For example, some question the fairness of a scheme that focuses on reducing emissions caused by some of the world’s poorest people while emissions continue to rise in richer countries. Some developing countries may be wary of foreign interference in their land use policies. Researchers also highlight operational concerns – such as the difficulty in monitoring and measuring deforestation rates, or attributing changes in deforestation to REDD finance. Variations in local circumstances and institutional capacities mean that not all countries that have tropical forests possess the capabilities to address these challenges.

How much REDD+ finance has been pledged?

REDD+ finance to developing countries is still fairly limited in scale. This is a major barrier to the scaling up and hence the effectiveness of REDD+ to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation. Estimates of the global cost of REDD+ vary greatly but at least US$15bn would be needed annually to address tropical deforestation across the world. Current funding remains far off this mark, with Norway alone currently providing 61% of the total, having pledged just under $2.5bn to REDD+ funds from 2008–16. With limited finance available, it can be difficult to protect forests, as alternative land uses (such as palm oil) can offer more immediate and guaranteed cash returns.

Consequently, many experts have called for a scaling-up of commitments and finance flows – though some have argued that even if large-scale REDD+ finance does materialise it may still struggle to compete with other land uses, especially as commodity prices continue to rise.

Whatever becomes of REDD+ in the future, experts agree it should focus first on areas that can most efficiently provide CO2 reductions (such as tropical peat swamp forests) while also offering the potential for biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation.

This FAQ was updated in January 2018. The original FAQ was a reproduction of the following article: What’s REDD and will it help tackle climate change? © The Guardian, 2012, used under a Creative Commons No Derivative Works licence.

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