For most observers, the outcomes of this year’s climate negotiations in Warsaw, Poland COP 19 were an inadequate response to climate change. But there was one bright spot— negotiators made big advances on a program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). While much work remains to be done, the progress on REDD+ sets countries up for success when it comes to preserving their forests and the climate-altering carbon stored inside. As the world prepares for next year’s major climate conference and moves toward establishing a new international climate action agreement in 2015, the progress on REDD+ deserves a closer look.

A Look at REDD+

Trees are major absorbers of carbon dioxide. Forests keep carbon locked up for many years—as long as they are not cut down and converted to other uses.

The problem is that forests are being cleared at high rates. According to recent estimates, roughly 15 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions originate from deforestation and land use change. Forests are therefore recognized as an important resource to slow and halt climate change, and forests have been included as a central issue in the global climate negotiations since the 2007 meeting in Bali.

Experts have been developing policy mechanisms to reward developing countries for not clearing forests. As a result, countries that manage forests well could be eligible for financial rewards provided by richer nations. The recent climate meeting in Warsaw made important decisions on how this mechanism, REDD+, will work in practice. REDD+ recognizes five activities that developing countries can do to earn compensation from developed countries, including:

  • Reducing emissions from deforestation;
  • Reducing emissions from forest degradation;
  • Sustainable management of forests;
  • Conservation of forest carbon stocks; and
  • Enhancement of forest carbon stocks

Although the concept may seem straightforward, there are many issues to be worked out to make REDD+ a reality. For example, how do you measure deforestation and forest degradation, how do you ensure the rights of forest-dependent communities, and who exactly should provide the funding? Answering these questions is a complex and contentious process.

REDD+ at COP 19

The decisions in Warsaw on REDD+ (called the “Warsaw Framework for REDD Plus”) were a significant step forward in making REDD+ a reality. Negotiators made progress across six key issues, including finance, transparency and safeguards, monitoring, verification, institutional arrangements, and addressing the drivers of deforestation.

I. Financing:

One of the most fundamental challenges has been around how developing countries get funding to implement strategies that reduce deforestation and associated emissions. The Warsaw Framework notes that the funds to implement REDD+ at a global scale are currently lacking. If these funds are not made available in sufficient quantities, then developing countries will not be able to implement the five REDD+ activities.

The Warsaw framework does not dictate new rules to solve this issue, but stresses that finance should be “results-based” and that developing countries need finance from funding agencies like the new Green Climate Fund or other sources. In addition, the different existing and potential REDD+ funding agencies are asked to coordinate their support better and ensure that it aligns with established UNFCCC rules. This last recommendation ensures that after an international climate agreement is finalized in 2015, developing countries will follow one streamlined set of rules to fulfill most donors’ requirements.

II. Transparency and safeguards:

Previous climate change meetings have established that finance and country actions related to REDD+ should be fully measured, reported and verified, a process referred to as “MRV.” In addition, transparency is important in establishing an effective and equitable REDD+ program.

The Warsaw Framework agreed on the “establishment of an information hub” on the UNFCCC website. The information hub would feature information on REDD+ activities, including results-based payments, technical reports that describe how greenhouse gas emissions savings are calculated, national forest strategy and action plans, information on how safeguards are addressed, and more. This hub is a big step in that it will increase the understanding of each country’s successes by making all this information widely available.

Especially notable is the requirement that countries should include a full assessment report on how safeguards are met. Safeguards (See Box 2) ensure that REDD+ is implemented in equitable ways and in accordance with a country’s sovereignty. The Warsaw Framework establishes that safeguards must be measured and publicly reported every two years, with the first public reports due in December 2014.

The UNFCCC REDD+ Safeguards

The UNFCCC REDD+ Safeguards include:

  • Actions [that] complement or are consistent with the objectives of national forest programs and relevant international conventions and agreements;

  • Transparent and effective national forest governance structures, taking into account national legislation and sovereignty;

  • Respect for the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples and members of local communities, by taking into account relevant international obligations, national circumstances and laws, and noting that the United Nations General Assembly has adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;

  • The full and effective participation of relevant stakeholders, in particular, indigenous peoples and local communities;

  • Actions [that] are consistent with the conservation of natural forests and biological diversity, ensuring that actions…are not used for the conversion of natural forests, but are instead used to incentivize the protection and conservation of natural forests and their ecosystem services, and to enhance other social and environmental benefits; and

  • Actions to address the risks of reversals; Actions to reduce displacement of emissions.

Source: UNFCCC, “the Cancun agreements: outcome of the work of the ad Hoc working group on long-term Cooperative action under the Convention, decision 1/CP 16, FCCC/CP/2010/7/add.1,” report of the Conference of the Parties on its Sixteenth Session, Cancun, Mexico, November 29—December 10 2010: 13, section 76; appendix i, section 2 as quoted from Daviet, F. and G. Larsen. 2012. “Safeguarding Forests and People.” WRI Report. World Resources Institute; Washington, DC.

III. Monitoring

In previous United Nations climate conferences, developing countries have been encouraged to establish a national forest monitoring system as part of their MRV system to better understand the drivers of deforestation. The Warsaw Framework makes these systems mandatory for all developing nations participating in REDD+.

Importantly, the Warsaw Framework stipulates what must be monitored and how. It states that MRV and national forest monitoring systems are based on remote-sensing and ground-based observations, and should be transparent as well as consistent over time. The systems must measure forest carbon stocks, forest-related emissions, forest area, and different types of forests. This is the first time that negotiators have provided such clear guidance, a critical first step in helping countries develop their own systems.

IV. Verification

Another issue clarified by the Warsaw Framework relates to ensuring that the system is effective enough to enable performance-based payments for REDD+. The Warsaw Framework mandates that MRV systems and forest reference level (the baseline against which changes in emissions are compared year-over-year) will be verified at the international level. This process is important because without verification, funding will not be paid.

This international verification has been hotly debated in previous meetings. With the new framework, for each country that is interested in claiming avoided deforestation through this mechanism, the UNFCCC will assemble a technical team that includes experts from one developed country and one developing country. This team will assess the MRV results and forest reference levels. The publicly available assessment will look at methods, definitions, accuracy, transparency, documentation, assumptions, gases included, and comprehensiveness of the country’s claims to avoided deforestation. The framework further established a timeline for completing this technical assessment annually, with all final reports published on the information hub in a timely fashion. The specificity of this agreement means that countries now understand how they will be judged and can develop their own systems. This is a major step forward.

V. Institutional Arrangements:

The Warsaw meeting reached another important decision on institutional arrangements. In many countries, it has been unclear which ministry or agency is responsible for implementing REDD+ and receiving associated funds. The new framework encourages countries to set up a national REDD+ entity or designate a focal point for REDD+-related matters. These entities are eligible to receive results-based finance to implement REDD+ activities and strategies. The national “REDD+ agencies” of all relevant countries are encouraged to share information and experience between countries, as well as hold regular meetings to identify gaps, needs, and good practices on REDD+ activities and financing arrangements.

VI. Drivers of Deforestation

Lastly, the Warsaw REDD+ agreement encourages all parties—private sector, NGOs, developed and developing countries—to take action in reducing drivers of deforestation. This includes continuing the implementation and support of ongoing initiatives. Unfortunately, the drivers of deforestation were not defined, so it is unclear how this decision will be implemented.

These steps may seem like only a small contribution to the larger goal of slowing and stopping climate change. However, effectively implementing schemes like REDD+ provides a living example of how international climate agreements can yield tangible results. Implementation of initiatives like REDD+ needs detailed and clear guidance to be effective.

The REDD+ decisions made at Warsaw represent significant progress. Countries can no longer point to a lack of framework as an excuse for not joining or funding REDD+ over the coming years. With a well-designed and well-supported REDD+ system, we can move toward a world with more secure forests and a more stable climate.