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The REDD+ Decision in Cancun

How does the new agreement on REDD set the stage for halting the destruction and degradation of forests?

After almost three years of difficult negotiations, parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have agreed to slow, halt, and reverse forest loss and the related emissions in developing countries (REDD+). However, there is still much work to do before parties to the UNFCCC can recognize potential REDD+ countries’ actions. The Cancun Agreements provide important guidance for all actors – countries, NGOs, multilateral institutions – who are helping countries prepare for REDD+ in the “fast-start” period through 2012. However, their actions will remain outside of (though now guided by) the UNFCCC, until discussions about appropriate methods for tracking and financing national mitigation actions are completed.

These will be the tasks for the upcoming year. What was in the agreement, and what remains to be done is described in more detail below.

The Cancun REDD Text

Like much of the Cancun Agreements, the REDD+ text was derived from text that has been in discussion for years. There are two major differences from previous drafts. First, the agreement now clearly states that REDD+ is not only about reducing emissions but halting and reversing forest loss. This is important as it emphasizes that REDD+ actions must result in maintaining existing forests and carbon stocks. Second, the agreement encourages all countries to find effective ways to reduce the human pressures on forests that result in greenhouse gas emissions. This element is important as it, correctly, puts part of the responsibility of slowing, stopping and reversing forest cover loss and associated emissions on those countries and actors (e.g., companies and consumers) that create the demands that drive deforestation (e.g. demands for timber, oil palm, soy, and cattle).

Primarily, the Cancun REDD+ text provides countries with guidance on REDD+ readiness. For example, the agreement recognizes that a phased approach will likely be necessary – from plans and implementation (phase 1 and 2) to results-based activities (phase 3) – and lists the systems and information that developing countries need to undertake REDD+ activities. These include a national plan, a national reference emission level, a robust and transparent national forest monitoring system, and a system for providing information for how safeguards – such as respecting indigenous peoples’ rights – are being addressed and respected.

In addition, Annex 1 to the REDD+ agreement provides more details about the principles and safeguards that actors undertaking activities and providing finance will need to respect, even in the "fast-start" finance period. While the language in the text could have been stronger, it represents a significant shift in the type of language included in UNFCCC documents to date and is one of the most significant aspects of the text.

Finally, the last paragraphs of the Cancun REDD+ agreement reflect some of the learning from REDD+ programs in the past year. Developed countries are being asked to coordinate financing and activities in each REDD+ country, as currently activities sometimes overlap or conflict. The text also recognizes the role of international organizations and other stakeholders in both the implementation and coordination of REDD+ activities.

Unanswered Questions

Though this agreement represents a step towards a fully-fledged REDD+ framework, there are important questions left unanswered. These will need to be addressed before REDD+ actions can be recognized and supported in the UNFCCC context. These include:

1. Definitions. While the REDD+ agreement includes five recognized activities – i.e., reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks, and sustainable management of forests – most of these activities are still undefined by the UNFCCC. For example “forest degradation” has not yet been defined, let alone "sustainable management of forests" and "conservation". Without definitions it is not possible to measure progress or pay for performance, which is central to the REDD+ discussions.

2. Reference Emission Levels. Additionally, more guidance is required for countries to develop national reference emissions levels (RELs). These RELs will determine the potential compensation a country could receive from REDD+ for a given level of activity. For example, if a country sets their REL too high, they may generate emission reductions though they have taken few actions to achieve them. In Annex 2 to the REDD+ agreement, the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technology Advice (SBSTA) has been given the mandate to develop modalities for REL development.

3. Safeguards. The agreement requests that countries develop an information system to track how safeguards are addressed and respected for REDD+. This is an important operational step for making the safeguards applicable. However, more detail is necessary on what information will be captured, how that information will be shared and for what purpose. The REDD+ decision text does not include language with regards to any institution within or outside of the UNFCCC (e.g., the registry or Green Climate Fund board) that would use the information to make decisions. The institutional questions need not be answered for the “fast-start" finance period. However, what information needs to be collected and shared is an area where fast-start finance actors (multilateral institutions, countries, etc.) have identified the need for further harmonization. In order to do so, these actors will need to better understand this issue and start the process of standardizing information. This should take place in the coming year. While SBSTA was also given this mandate in Annex 2, the stakeholders and experts that should be involved in these discussions are likely to reside outside of the UNFCCC process.

4. The Phased Approach and Links to NAMAs. The current text describes a phased approach to REDD+, but it does not make links between the phases and recognition of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) and the support linked to NAMAs. This leaves a number of unanswered questions, including whether actions in the early phases (and the financing supporting them) would be included in the NAMAs registry if taken after the “fast-start” finance period, and if so how they would be measured, reported and verified. Additionally, it is not clear how countries will move between phases and whether there will be a time table for moving between phases once the country has identified a starting point and received support. Finally, the “results-based” approach promoted as the final phase will need to be clarified.

5. Finance. The developed countries are urged to support - using bilateral and multilateral channels -- phase 1 and 2 activities and to improve their reporting of their support. However, the question of financing for phase 3 was not agreed to in Cancun. This is likely due to the outstanding methodological questions about what the “results-based” approach would actually include. While this may have been disappointing for those who expected a signal that a market-based approach will be used to generate REDD+ finance, several countries were strongly opposed to this approach.1

As with many of the decisions agreed to in Cancun, now the hard work begins on implementing the framework. However, all actors involved in the readiness and fast-start activities now have clearer guidance of what the framework will include and what work needs to be done. The progress REDD+ countries make in implementing readiness activities, as well as methodological work by SBSTA, will be important next steps on the road to next year’s meeting in South Africa.


  1. This paragraph was edited for clarity on January 28, 2011. 

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