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My guest this week is Frances Seymour, our newest senior fellow at the Center and one of the world’s top authorities on the complex issues at the intersection of tropical forests, development and climate change. Before joining CGD, Frances was for six years director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), a nonprofit, global organization based in Indonesia that that is one of 15 research centers affiliated with the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).  Under her direction, CIFOR became a global leader on the forestry-development-climate nexus.

At CGD, Frances is leading a new project designed to create global consensus on the importance of forest conservation and to promote results-based financing for a program known as REDD+. REDD stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus Preservation,” with the "plus" connoting conservation and sustainable management of forests and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks.  Forest loss and land conversion generates as much as a fifth of world’s emissions of heat-trapping gases, so unless we can find a way to dramatically slow deforestation, there is little chance of holding the increase in average global temperatures this century below 2 degrees Celsius—widely seen by climate scientists as the tipping point to runaway climate change (see this new World Bank infographic for a taste of what’s likely in store within your lifetime).

The key, Frances explains, will be to make forests more valuable standing than chopped down.

“Global demand for commodities that replace forests—such as cattle to produce beef for domestic consumption and export, soybeans, palm oil, pulp and paper—is extremely high. So if we want to address deforestation, we have to find ways to reform supply chains so that markets are sensitive to the environmental impacts of the source of those globalized commodities.”

So, I asked, “How do we do that?”

“As long as there are bad actors that are willing to deforest highly valuable landscapes to make some money, then the government has got to step in,” Frances says.

In addition, “there is a group of consumer-facing retail companies that have made a commitment to remove deforestation from their supply chains,” for example, paper products companies and palm oil producers who pledge that their activities will not fuel deforestation. However, she adds, there are limits to how much such private voluntary initiatives can accomplish.

The winning combination, she says, is “a combined approach that marries the voluntary private initiatives with strengthening of governance and regulatory frameworks in the producer countries.”

Because people all over the world will benefit from reductions in tropical-forest destruction, REDD+ proposes mobilizing finance in high-income countries to help off-set the costs of forest preservation costs in developing countries—in effect, to make protecting the forests worth more than cutting them down.

Currently this mechanism lacks of the one thing it needs: a willingness in the global North to pay for forest protection in the global South. Negotiators had hoped that restrictions on emissions in the industrialized countries would generate demand for carbon credits. So far it hasn’t worked out that way.

“Everyone got all dressed up and went to the altar for REDD+ anticipating that an agreement [to restrict global emissions] would be reached [at the 2009 Climate Summit] in Copenhagen,” Frances explains.

“That didn't happen, and subsequently there's been scrambling in "REDD+ world" to come up with a new vision for how the finance and [REDD+]mechanism would work in the absence of such an agreement and large scale finance,” she explains.

One risk is that REDD+ would fall prey to some of the problems that affect foreign aid (see Nancy Birdsall’s Seven Deadly Sins: Reflections on Donor Failings). And one way to avoid these problems—and to increase Northern willingness to pay—is to build into the program new pay-for-performance approaches, such as CGD’s Cash-on-Delivery Aid, that focus on outcomes rather than inputs and processes.

Of course, adopting such an approach would require having reliable, detailed, and frequently updated information on the status of tropical forests. Fortunately, such a system is now available.

As REDD+ has been struggling to sink roots, CGD has been developing a tool known as Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA), which uses satellite data to generate regularly updated online maps of tropical forest clearing.  FORMA is at the core of the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch 2.0, which unites satellite technology, data sharing, and human networks around the world to fight deforestation

FORMA data “is critical to any REDD+ mechanism,” Frances says. “It has to be clear where deforestation has taken place, and FORMA does that and also makes transparent where deforestation is taking place now.”

One approach made possible by FORMA data is to determine a deforestation rate baseline, so that a country's performance in reducing deforestation is compared to what would have happened otherwise, and then pay for improvements.  CGD senior policy associate Michele de Nevers explains how this could work in a recent policy paper that builds on David Wheeler’s previous work on a Forest Conservation Performance Rating System or fCPR (for more, see also my recent Wonkcast with Wheeler and WRI’s Nigel Sizer).

Together with Michele and other CGD colleagues, and drawing upon her own formidable knowledge of forests, development and climate change, Frances will author a report presenting evidence of the importance of forests to averting catastrophic climate change, and co-chair a working group to develop consensus around the potential and technical approaches to pay-for-performance finance for forest conservation.

I’m delighted to be welcoming Frances to CGD for what promises to be important, challenging and exciting work. I share her hope that a rapidly growing awareness of the urgency of the climate threat, a growing confidence in pay-for-performance finance approaches, and the sophisticated monitoring technology embodied in FORMA will persuade wealthy countries to help foot the bill for forest protection in the developing world.

Sound far-fetched? Perhaps.  But Frances and I and many of us here at CGD are convinced it’s worth trying. After all, averting runaway climate change—not to mention protecting the homes of the lemurs and bonobos—is in everybody’s interest.