Forests, Carbon and REDD+: The Ultimate Equalizer in Global North-South Relations?

The deadlock between parties at international climate negotiations has ceased to be headline news; nevertheless, obstacles to any final, substantive agreement remain. The parties are divided between the bloc of nations with forests that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the industrialised countries responsible for the majority of carbon dioxide emissions. The producers want to pay the consumers of this waste to keep their forests intact so that carbon dioxide continues to be removed from the atmosphere. It’s a simple idea, but global political alignments seem to permeate every dispute. It is in these climate negotiations, and particularly those that concern the issue of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+), that we can see a microcosm of global political alliances, resentment, mistrust, economic opportunism and post-colonial guilt. The producers of carbon dioxide are some of the richest countries in the world and the consumers are some of the poorest.

Image courtesy of Michael Musgrave, all rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Michael Musgrave, all rights reserved.

At the heart of any solution to this dispute will be the recognition of the true nature of the debate and also of what is at stake. On the surface it seems as if we are all in it together: because climate change affects us all, it is in everyone’s interest to find a solution. Although this is simplistic, it is also true, and yet it is was not the position taken around the tables of Copenhagen, Cancun, or Durban. Nevertheless, the debate is more complex than both parties seem to realise.

The forested countries, and other developing countries which vote with them, appear to want to turn the payment for keeping their forests into another development aid project. The developed countries only want to pay for clearly verifiable forest conservation where the volume of carbon sequestered can be easily measured. In many ways, both are at a severe disadvantage with respect to the other’s position. For the first time in history, the industrialised countries need something from the developing areas of the world which cannot be taken by force, colonisation or by supporting corrupt dictators. The conservation of forests on the scale at which it is needed is only going to be achieved through genuine partnerships with local people, transparent and effective government support and real changes to tenure and participation in forest management.

The developing countries seem to be under the impression that their advantage gives them the power to hold out for the maximum possible remuneration, in exactly the form they want so that they can get their hands on the money, no matter what offers are on the table. For the first time, however, they too are in a unique position with respect to their relationship with the North. They have a resource that can potentially invigorate their economies, but they cannot deliver it based on the development model they have been so comfortable with in the past, or the current crony capitalism which they seem to favour in their partnerships with China at present. They will have to reform their forest tenure arrangements, allow local people to participate in managing forests, ensure that communities get remuneration which stops them from heavily discounting the future to the extent that they currently do, and they must ensure they satisfy their customers (the Global North) that they have delivered a product which they cannot see. Taking the money and pleading lack of capacity is not going to work this time. What each side needs to realise is that both are prepared to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Industrialised countries are going to continue producing CO2 and will not comply with Kyoto emissions targets if the negotiating positions of the other side are too absolutist. Kyoto – like most global agreements – is essentially unenforceable, and this is a problem for both parties. On the other hand, industrialised countries need to realise that developing nations are quite prepared to continue cutting down their forests if they don’t get an equitable settlement.

Like all agreements, the solution requires compromise, but also a genuine appraisal of the situation. The Global North needs to be sure that it is paying an appropriate price for what it is asking. Poor people don’t like being ripped off any more than rich people. Developing countries need to realise that these payments are unpopular in the Global North and will only be deliverable if the paying governments can show they are getting something for their money. The Global South are negotiating with representatives of democracies who can be voted out of office if they give away taxpayers money and get nothing in return.

The insistence by the Global South that payments are made to government bodies and not on a project level arouses suspicion, especially when some of the governments demanding this structure are amongst the most corrupt in the world. The capacity to deliver reductions in deforestation in some of the forested countries is woefully inadequate and rather than resenting this being used as a bargaining point, forested countries need to come to the table with a plan to solve this problem, rather than demanding that all funds are paid to a government body which will then be responsible for implement the necessary capacity. Far too many development aid projects have failed to deliver any meaningful change to people’s lives for this claim to be trusted.

The amount of money being placed on the table by the Global North is in some cases quite inadequate when one considers the scale of the problem the Global South is being asked to solve. The insistence on market solutions to all problems by the Global North will not result in what they need: a reduction in emissions from deforestation.

Whichever solution is worked out, it is likely to be complicated, tailored to specific circumstances and targeted at producing a verifiable reduction in emissions, with all the ecological and social benefits which the ‘+’ in REDD+ implies.  A mix of development assistance, private capital investment, public institution building and national coordination will ultimately deliver the best result.

4 Replies to “Forests, Carbon and REDD+: The Ultimate Equalizer in Global North-South Relations?”

  1. Because it has been proven that carbon emissions over the last hundred years are a very accurate measure of proportional responsibility towards climate change and income inequalities worldwide, I am sure someone could come up with an algorithm that redresses the current imbalances?

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