From the Mountains to the Forests

October 09, 2013

On my summer vacation in Montana this year, I made my much-anticipated first trip to Glacier National Park.  The scenery was indeed stunning, but the famed glaciers less so.  A hike up to the Grinnell Glacier revealed a weeping patch of snow and ice, greatly diminished from the formidable structure depicted in the century-old photos in the lodge.  According to the park ranger, all of the glaciers in the park may be completely gone by 2030. For me, having recently returned to the US after six years as the director general of Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Indonesia, where I saw first-hand the impacts of climate change on both people and forests in the tropics, it was a powerful reminder that the effects of climate change are being felt all around the world.

The science tells much the same story, of course. The release last week of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (highlights here) provides further evidence of the immense gap between the urgency of action demanded by climate science and the slow-as-molasses pace of the international response.  (I would have said “glacial” pace, but seeing how fast the glaciers are retreating, that no longer seems an appropriate adjective.)  While we’ll have to wait until next March and April for the IPCC’s reports on adaptation and mitigation, I’m willing to bet that the scientific consensus on the particularly adverse consequences of climate change for developing countries will only get stronger.

CGD’s focus is on what industrialized countries can do to support development, not just through aid, but also through a range of other policies that impact the development prospects of poor countries.  Climate-related policies will surely rise higher on the list as we deepen our understanding of the implications of climate change, and the appropriate global division of labor for doing something about it.

That brings me to another feature of my summer vacation in Montana, which was watching train after train speed by during the day, and hearing them go thundering throughout the night, each with a seemingly endless number of cars piled high with coal.  Unquestionably the largest and most important task of industrialized countries is to reduce our voracious consumption of fossil fuels.  My great-grandfather was a coal miner, so I probably have a particularly large share of carbon debt for which I need to atone.

But reducing emissions from fossil fuel combustion only gets us part of the way to where we need to be in order to avert catastrophic climate change.  Back in 2007, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report helped put tropical forests back on the international agenda by illuminating the large share of greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation and other land-use change.  That year’s global climate conference in Bali (a.k.a. the 13th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or “COP 13”) produced an Action Plan for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, a process known as “REDD.”

REDD was based on the assumption that rich countries would pay developing countries to protect their forests. It appealed to the global North as a potentially low-cost way to reduce total global emissions, thereby slowing climate change and buying time to make more costly cuts in their own emissions. It was attractive to countries in the global South as a new source of development finance.  And it was attractive to conservationists as a new rationale and source of funding to protect all the other values of tropical forests, not least their astonishing wealth of biological diversity.

But large-scale finance for REDD depended on an overall climate deal, prospects for which were dashed at the failed Copenhagen negotiations in 2009.  Enthusiasm for REDD (which admittedly was irrationally exuberant knowing what we did about the challenges of forest governance) has gradually given way to what one former REDD negotiator calls a “narrative of disappointment.”

National-level political leaders and local-level project proponents who placed early bets on REDD have been caught between the rock of limited international funding, and the hard place of implementation challenges.  Those challenges range from powerful interests in continuing deforestation business-as-usual -- especially in light of the profits to be made from producing commodities like palm oil and soybeans that replace forests -- to the difficulty of sorting out conflicting land tenure claims and ensuring that REDD interventions don’t make forest-dependent communities worse off. And while no one doubts the wisdom of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, many observers question the potential of REDD as a mechanism for forest protection.

Against this background, I’m proud and frankly a bit worried that CGD has invited me to lead a brave effort to confront this “narrative of disappointment” infecting the discourse on forests and climate change. My colleagues and I hope to refresh the agenda with rigorous analysis of why forests are important to climate change and to development, and what can be done to stem forest loss.  Over the next two years, we’ll be taking another look at what the science, the economics, and the politics are telling us about what’s needed and what’s possible. 

In particular, we’ll be assessing the potential of “payment-for-performance” as applied to the management of forests, drawing upon CGD’s work on Cash on Delivery Aid as applied in other sectors.  Remarkably, proponents of performance-based aid and proponents of REDD have for the most part been working in parallel silos.  In my next blog, I’ll speculate on what the two camps might learn from each other.

It’s probably too late to reverse the retreat of the glaciers in Montana, but here’s hoping it’s not too late to regain the momentum behind REDD.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.