Bogor, Indonesia — The challenges in implementing a scheme to reduce carbon emissions by avoiding deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) are now more political than technical, said scientists on the sidelines of last fortnight's UN climate change talks in Doha.
REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) aims to reward developing nations for protecting, restoring and sustainably managing forests.
The technical challenges of making a scheme like REDD+ work are considerable, says Louis Verchot from the Center for International Forestry Research: how to identify what factors are driving deforestation and design effective policies; how to determine what 'business as usual' emissions would be if action wasn't taken (reference emissions levels or RELs); how to measure, report and verify the emissions reductions claimed by projects or countries (MRV); and how to fund the scheme.
But Verchot says scientists from CIFOR, together with partners, have shown that these problems are surmountable.
"We've developed tools, ideas, and concepts that do give us practical solutions," he said.
"We're saying to countries, here are some practical approaches: everyone can do this, you can do it in your own ministries, and do your own calculations, make it appropriate for your specific context, and refine it over time as you learn and gain experience."
"Our work shows how to get started and the steps to making improvements."
Negotiations on REDD+ stalled at the Doha talks, but the obstacles to reaching agreement on the critical measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of carbon emissions were political rather than technical.
The impasse was reported to be between Brazil and Norway, with Norway pushing for an independent, international verification process for deforestation-related carbon emissions, while Brazil and other developing countries refused to commit to external verification, saying donor countries are also major greenhouse gas emitters and are not yet subject to such stringent verification.
But until recently, it wasn't just politics holding up progress on REDD+ at the annual UN meeting.
When the idea of an international scheme for reducing emissions from deforestation was first floated at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's 7th Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP 7) in Marrakech in 2001, it was rejected because, among other reasons, it was perceived to be too difficult to calculate the emissions avoided by keeping forests standing and healthy, Verchot says.
But since COP 11 in Montreal in 2005, when developing countries raised the idea again as part of their contribution to addressing climate change, scientists have been working to resolve the technical problems and figure out ways to make the necessary calculations - even in countries with low capacity and few data.
CIFOR and the Global Observation for Forest Cover and Land Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD) have been working to assist countries to develop effective national forest monitoring systems and improve capacity in readiness for REDD+, through workshops and publications.
Stepwise approach for setting reference emissions levels
At a joint CIFOR/GOFC-GOLD side event in Doha, Lou Verchot and CIFOR colleagues presented what they call the "stepwise approach" which allows countries to begin setting RELs.
"Reference emissions levels are the reference point from which you begin counting how much emissions reductions you've been able to achieve. RELs set up the counterfactual, of how much emissions would have occurred in the absence of REDD+ activities," Verchot said.
Verchot says the approach gives national ministries a method to follow to generate the most accurate numbers possible.
"The stepwise approach means that countries can start simple with current data and increase accuracy and precision over time as the capacity increases and better data becomes available," he said.
Emissions reductions are defined as the actual emissions minus the reference levels. To estimate the actual emissions, you need two types of data.
"First, you need what we call 'activity data', which is information on the types of deforestation or land-use changes taking place in the country, you need to know how much reforestation is happening. Second, you need emissions factors, which are an estimate of the greenhouse gas emissions generated per hectare of forest that is converted to another use - say converting a peat swamp to an oil palm plantation," he said.
"You can then put all that information together, following our method, to come up with an estimate of how much carbon would be emitted from deforestation in a country - and how much would be saved by leaving it alone."
What's driving deforestation?
Scientists have also been working to give countries guidance on the drivers of deforestation. Until recently, few countries have been able to say exactly what proportion of deforestation was linked to agriculture, infrastructure development, mining or logging due to a lack of data.
But a new report from CIFOR associate Martin Herold and colleagues outlines the major drivers for 46 REDD+ countries, and provides a way to estimate drivers for countries without data, until more detailed work is done.
Such information is vital to help countries design and implement effective policies to slow down degradation and deforestation.
Fixing the finances
In addition, Arild Angelsen - a professor of economics at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and a senior CIFOR associate - is working to resolve some of the financial problems associated with REDD+.
"The basic question is what to pay for, and how," he says.
"The simple answer is to pay a set rate for emissions reductions. But there are good reasons for not doing that."
Firstly, Angelsen says, the initial emissions reductions a country makes are easier to achieve, so paying a set carbon price for these could imply overcompensating countries or projects. The scarce money the global community has for REDD+ could be spent more effectively, he says.
Secondly, REDD+ countries have different responsibilities and capabilities, and this should also be reflected in international REDD payments.
"Middle-income countries should assume higher responsibility compared to the poorest countries. Key REDD+ countries such as Brazil and Indonesia have also clearly said that REDD+ bill should be shared between the countries themselves and the international community," Angelsen says.
The exact split is ultimately a political question, but researchers can help in formulating some principles and the implications of these.
Angelsen and co-researchers have developed an approach to setting a "financial incentive benchmark". It will balance different considerations, such as the financial interest of the countries to participate, and to economize the use of the REDD funding available.
"We need to find a system that we can afford," Angelsen says.
"This is often overlooked. The UN climate negotiations sometimes comes up with promises I believe everybody knows are highly unrealistic, for example a Green Climate Fund disbursing USD 100 billion per year by 2020.
"Negotiators need to look at how to fund and implement their promises, if not their credibility is undermined."
Countries can start now
Lou Verchot says the recent advances in the technical side of REDD+ mean the scheme is ready to go forward - once the political hurdles on MRV and finance have been cleared.
"It is going to come down to a political decision at some point, countries are going to have to negotiate and make some decisions," he said. "This means committing to emission reduction actions, committing finance and agreeing on how emissions reductions will be verified."
"But this work should help to facilitate the political process as well, because we've done this very transparently. Everyone can see the numbers and use them as a basis for negotiations - to decide what you will accept as activity data, what you will accept as emissions factors, what are you willing to accept with respect to the drivers of future deforestation."
He says countries can start this process now.
"Here is a framework, we've shown different ways that countries could formulate solutions to the problem," he said.
"What you need to do now is find the proper formulation that fits the specific country."
"It's much less of a mystery now than it was in 2005."