Global Anti-Deforestation Efforts Aren't Enough to Tackle Forest Loss

Tropical regions lost 9.3 million acres of primary old-growth forest in 2021 alone.

Area in Amazon Forest deforested for cattle and remaining forest.

LeoFFreitas / Getty Images

In 2010, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met in Cancun and agreed to a plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by protecting forests: wealthier countries would pay poorer nations not to cut down their trees.

The REDD+ framework, which stands for “reduc[ing] emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, as well as the sustainable management of forests and the conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks," has evolved over the course of subsequent U.N. climate talks, but the basic principle has remained the same. So, more than a decade later, how successful has the program been? 

This is something that the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO)—known as the “IPCC of forests”—set out to assess in a report released earlier this month. The report points out things the program has done well and things that it could do better. But one major takeaway is the problems of deforestation and the climate crisis require other solutions as well. 

Quick Stat

Tropical areas lost 9.3 million acres of primary old-growth forest in 2021 resulting in 2.5 billion metric tons of emissions of carbon dioxide. How much is that? Roughly 2.5x the emissions from passenger cars and light trucks in the U.S. annually.

“It has a role to play, but it’s only part of a bigger picture, and that bigger picture is also dwarfed by the need to reduce fossil fuel consumption,” lead author and IUFRO President John Parrotta, who also works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, tells Treehugger. “Forests are part of the picture, but it’s not an excuse to [not] act in many, many other ways and sectors to get us off our fossil fuel addiction.” 

Forests and Climate Change

The new report, titled “Forests, Climate, Biodiversity and People: Assessing a Decade of REDD+,” comes at a crucial time both for the global climate and for the world’s forests. It was published exactly one month after the latest IPCC report warned that policies in place through the end of 2020 would set the planet on track for 3.2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. Days after its release, Brazil’s space agency announced the country had seen record deforestation in the Amazon for the month of April, as Reuters reported at the time. 

The report's authors acknowledged the urgency of the current moment. They noted that, while the rate of deforestation is slowing down, the planet still lost 10 million hectares of forest every year between 2015 and 2020. Between 1990 and 2020, around 420 million hectares of forest were cleared, more than 90% of it in the tropics. Forests currently absorb 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but they also are responsible for 10% of these same emissions when they are damaged or destroyed. 

While halting this deforestation is therefore essential, it’s not enough to resolve the climate crisis on its own. Reducing deforestation could reduce global emissions by between 0.4 and 5.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year depending on the estimate. For reference, global carbon dioxide emissions were expected to hit 36.4 gigatonnes in 2021, and they need to fall by 1.4 gigatonnes each year to reach net-zero by 2050. 

The Pluses of REDD+ 

“Nonetheless,” the study authors write, “forests and actions under REDD+ have the potential to make significant contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while addressing deforestation and forest degradation.” 

After the Cancun meeting, the REDD+ framework was further developed at the U.N. climate change conference in Warsaw in 2013. It is supposed to work in three stages: 

  1. Nations will develop action plans and policies to protect or restore forests.
  2. Nations will begin to implement those plans and policies to move towards a measurable outcome.
  3. These initial steps will develop into actions that can be accurately reported to receive payment for verifiable results. 

“Unfortunately,” the study authors conclude,  “it is not yet possible to reach any firm conclusions regarding REDD+ impacts to date.” 

This is because the program is still in a relatively early stage and because nations have provided limited information about their progress. However, there is some indication that the program is making a positive difference.

In the last 10 years, 46 to 85% of countries participating in REDD+ said they had decreased deforestation compared with 16 to 33% of non-participating countries. Seventeen countries that participated in REDD+ said they had taken actions that reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 11.4 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide between 2006 and 2020. Overall, however, the study authors said there wasn’t enough evidence to say for certain that REDD+ participation had caused deforestation decreases.

One positive, Parrotta tells Treehugger, is most of the payments so far have gone to securing protected areas in large undisturbed tracts of primary tropical forests. 

“From a carbon point of view, there’s more carbon in these old forests than in other secondary forests,” he says, adding that “any program that actually helps to maintain the integrity of protected areas is a good thing, especially from a biodiversity perspective.” 

Local Support

While it isn’t yet possible to make broad judgments about the impact of REDD+ as a whole, the authors were able to assess the success, so far, of some individual projects. What they found is projects tended to fare better if local communities and stakeholders were involved in the planning process from the start and saw concrete benefits. 

“If they’re not involved, the buy-in is not going to be there, and these  . . projects won’t really be sustainable,” Parrotta says. 

One important aspect of local buy-in is making sure the people who live in the forest have a secure right to the land. In Indonesia, studies have found that local people are more likely to distrust the government and less likely to participate in REDD+ activities when their land tenure rights are uncertain. On the other hand, forests are better protected in parts of the Americas and the Caribbean where the rights of Indigenous peoples are acknowledged. 

Another important influence on the success of REDD+ is how well the projects are governed. 

“Since 2012, implementation of REDD+ has advanced considerably in many countries but ultimately it is REDD+ governance that determines its performance,” program coordinator of the IUFRO’s Global Forest Expert Panels and report co-author and editor Christoph Wildburger says in a press release shared with Treehugger. “Yet, governance is distributed across a complex landscape of institutions with different sources of authority and power dynamics that influence its outcomes.”

Logs stacked up in a Brazilian forest

Nelson Grima / IUFRO

For example, Brazil has gone from a country with massive deforestation to a global leader in reducing deforestation to worrying the world with rising deforestation rates again, and much of this is because of changes in the national government. At the same time, individual states in Brazil have had success implementing REDD+ programs on their own. 

World leaders continue to promise action on deforestation. At the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow in November 2021, 141 countries, including Brazil, pledged to halt and reverse deforestation and forest degradation by 2030. But whether or not they will make that pledge remains to be seen. 

“The trends are not good,” Parrotta says. “This is like steering the Titanic off course, away from the iceberg.” 

View Article Sources
  1. "Forests, Climate, Biodiversity and People: Assessing a Decade of REDD+." International Union of Forest Research Organizations.

  2. "Forest Pulse: The Latest on the World’s Forests." World Resource Institute.

  3. "Climate Change 2022." Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

  4. "Global Carbon Budget 2021." Global Carbon Project.

  5. "Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use." UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021.