A forthcoming study brings a reality check on who is footing the bill for REDD+.

Local and state government institutions in the jurisdictions where REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) is being implemented are bearing financial burdens, says a forthcoming study from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which might threaten the scheme’s viability to scale up in the coming years.

“The total amount in the Green Climate Fund so is far is even too little for adaptation actions in Africa alone given the latest estimates of the UNEP Adaptation Gap Report, which says that costs for adaptation alone could rise to a level of 100 to 200 billion dollars per year in 2050 even if the 2-degree limit is kept” argues an alliance of African civil society groups“This is one of the first studies to characterize the institutions and actors that bear the costs of the sub-national REDD+ initiatives across the tropics. It’s really a reality check,” says Cecilia Luttrell, a senior associate with CIFOR and one of the lead authors of the paper.

“Many REDD+ initiatives have been working under the assumption that the costs of reducing deforestation will be covered by incoming funds from the international community and that REDD+ would also generate a surplus that could be equitably shared between different stakeholders,” she says.

One of the most striking findings is that 84% of subnational government institutions involved in the REDD+ initiatives studied are putting more in than they are getting out of REDD+.

“They may be doing this because they are trying to position themselves to capture future funding streams for REDD+ or because they recognize the local benefits of forest conservation,” Luttrell says.

“But in the short-term, they are bearing real costs.”

The study comes at a critical time for results-based finance – climate negotiators will soon gather in Bonn, Germany, to start laying the groundwork for execution of the Paris agreement.

The Green Climate Fund is expected to provide important financing for REDD+. A key question facing the Fund’s design is how the price of carbon should be set.

“If the costs of REDD+ are underestimated, then there is a risk that the price set for carbon won’t cover the real costs,” Luttrell says.

The main objective of REDD+ is to provide positive economic incentives to people in developing countries to conserve forests and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One of the key assumptions of REDD+ is that reducing carbon emissions from deforestation is cheaper than reducing emissions from other sectors, such as transport and energy production.

Estimates of REDD+ costs have long been criticized for excluding transaction and implementation costs and undervaluing informal market activities such as subsistence farming.

“Who bears the costs of REDD+?” is just one of the critical questions addressed in the REDD+ benefits sharing knowledge tree, which aims to help policy makers understand the potential impacts of their decisions on the way benefits from REDD+ are shared.

Luttrell and other CIFOR colleagues have been analyzing subnational REDD+ initiatives since 2009 as part of the Global Comparative Study on REDD+. They’ve repeatedly heard concerns about the costs of REDD+ and about who will bear those costs.

“People are afraid that disadvantaged groups, such as smallholders and those who don’t own land, will not be fully compensated for the opportunity costs they bear,” says Erin Sills, professor at North Carolina State University and lead author of the forthcoming paper.

“Another fear is that REDD+ will become an unfunded mandate for REDD+ country institutions, who will bear substantial but largely unrecognized and uncompensated costs”

“We wanted to know if those fears were well founded.”


To determine who has been bearing the brunt of implementation costs, researchers asked 22 REDD+ subnational initiatives to list the institutions that had control over at least 5% of the total budget of the initiative, or had spent at least five days per month on implementation.

village432“Across these initiatives there were 139 institutions in that list. 60 of these are civil society organizations, 43 are government institutions and only 19 are for-profit companies,” says Sills, who is also a senior associate at CIFOR.

Key informants for each initiative then categorized institutions into three groups:

  1. Institutions whose costs are fully covered (or possibly receiving a surplus) by the REDD+ initiative budget
  2. Institutions whose costs are partially covered
  3. Institutions with multiple roles that are both partially covered and receiving a surplus

Drilling deeper, they discovered some basis for concerns about REDD+ implementation costs falling on developing country institutions, especially local and regional governments. Firstly, no government institutions are involved in implementing REDD+ initiatives that have sold carbon credits. Secondly, of the REDD+ initiatives that have failed or expired, more than a third had implementing institutions from government. Thirdly, less than a quarter of government institutions involved in the implementation of REDD+ are fully covering their costs from REDD+ funding.

“This seems at odds with the expectation that REDD+ will generate benefits that can be shared,” Sills says.

“These numbers tell us that very few actors claim or are perceived to be financially benefitting from REDD+ right now.”

Rather, in these early efforts to roll out REDD+ on the ground, it seems that the challenge has been to fully cover costs, not to decide how to divvy up a surplus.

This is a finding that Rob Dodson knows all too well. Rob heads African Field Operations for Wildlife Works – a private company implementing a portfolio of REDD+ projects across the world.

“The cost of inception of these projects is definitely a limiting factor,” he says. “We are just managing to keep the wolf from the door with our projects and we are probably one of the better funded projects. We are really struggling.”


The researchers then looked at the land uses that are likely to be restricted by REDD+, as well as the stakeholder groups that would be most affected by those restrictions.

“In the initiatives we studied, agriculture and ranching are the most important activities that will be affected by REDD+ implementation, in terms of both the foregone financial profit as well as the number of people affected,” Luttrell says.

Many calculations of opportunity costs have assumed that local people will have secure land tenure with clearly defined and enforced property rights.

“This is a big assumption to make,” Luttrell says, “and can mean you misunderstand the true opportunity costs of local people engaged in traditional activities not formally recognized in the law.”

To understand this better, they classified whether each affected stakeholder group was operating in a legal or illegal manner in terms of tenure.

They found that the land uses from which the greatest number of people benefit tend to be illegal or legally ambiguous: in only six of the REDD+ sites were such land uses clearly legal.

“Perhaps more surprisingly, for more than half of the sites, the most profitable land uses were based on illegal or legally ambiguous tenure,” Luttrell says.

This raises questions about who has legitimate claim on REDD+ revenues: should illegal forest users be entitled to benefits?

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