REDD + or Dead: The UN-Backed REDD + (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) Scheme, under Which Developing Nations Would Be Paid Not to Cut Down Trees, Is Being Hailed as the Saviour of the World's Forests. but Is It Too Focused on Quantity Rather Than Quality? Mark Rowe Investigates

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Some rare good news for the world's beleaguered forests emerged from the environmental conference in Cancun, Mexico, late last year. Environment ministers--some more willingly than others--committed to pay developing countries to stop cutting down their rainforests.

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At last, it seems, a deal is in place to replenish our global stock of forests, protect biodiversity and recognise the work that forests do to bolster the planet against climate change and support local indigenous people. After all, we can all surely agree that planting forests is a Good Thing.

Optimists argue that this is a firm step in the right direction in the battle against climate change; there's little dispute that carbon emissions from forests that have been logged and cleared--mainly for palm oil, pulp, cattle and soya--need to be hauled in swiftly. Forests cover 30 per cent of our planet's land area, and deforestation and forest degradation are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that logging contributes to roughly 17 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than transport and third only to the energy (26 per cent) and industrial (19 per cent) sectors.

The Cancun framework agreement, known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), is a scheme under which developing countries would be paid not to cut down trees, and to replant and regenerate some that have already been felled. This includes reforestation, the re-establishment of forest on land where forest or plantations have been cut down (and which brings about no ch0nge in forest area), and afforestation, the planting of new trees where there were none before.

All of this goes beyond merely planting trees, however, and aims to enhance carbon stocks, sustainable forest management and forest conservation. REDD+ is backed by the UN and the World Bank, and has secured agreements with 29 countries in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America. So far, US$97million has been committed--the major part of it, US$83million, from Norway--and at first glance, it reinforces the perception that the fortunes of the world's rainforests, after decades of abuse, have taken a turn for the better.

PARADOXICAL POSITION

If only things were that straightforward. In this, the UN-designated International Year of Forests, REDD+ has divided national governments and alarmed environmental organisations. Forests find themselves in a paradoxical position: they've never had so many people trying to protect them but, equally, they've never been so endangered.

The good news is that logging rates are declining in many areas. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), annual logging rates decreased from around 16 million hectares during the 1990s to 13 million hectares in the past decade. At the same time, afforestation and natural expansion of forests in some countries have reduced the global net loss of forest area significantly. The net loss of forest area between 2000 and 2010 was estimated at 5.2 million hectares per year (an area about the size of Costa Rica), down from 8.3 million hectares per year between 1990 and 2000.

These net changes, however, include the replacement of plantations, which critics argue artificially lowers the real figures.

There is also quite a high degree of uncertainty about the actual situation on the ground. 'Despite all the technology, it's still very difficult in many parts of the world to know what the true position is,' says Peter Holmgren, director of the Climate, Energy and Land Tenure division of the FAO, and FAO coordinator for the UN-REDD Programme. 'In many nations, the monitoring systems we need don't really exist. Deforestation remains very high in several regions. It continues in Africa at a high rate, but this is also the continent with the lowest quality of information. …