In Congo Basin rainforests, the success of REDD+ leaves adaptation efforts trailing

Photo courtesy of Dan Balluff/flickr

BOGOR, Indonesia (19 September, 2011)_ The dominance of REDD+ schemes (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) as a way to tackle climate change has encouraged government offices, international agencies and private groups in the Congo Basin to focus on mitigation efforts, often at the expense of protective adaptation to climate change, according to a recent study by the Center for International Forestry Research.

“When it comes to adaptation, people say ‘show me the impact of climate change’,” says Olufunso Somorin, lead author of The Congo Basin forests in a changing climate: Policy discourses on adaptation and mitigation (REDD+). “But the reality is that climate change is never debated when it comes to mitigation through REDD+. You begin to wonder if we actually have two different climate changes to deal with.”

The Congo Basin rainforest represents 18 percent of the world’s tropical forests and is a massive carbon sink, locking in between 25 and 30 billion tons of carbon. This makes it is a carbon reserve of global significance, attracting the interest of international climate policies.  Although the Congo Basin suffers lower rates of deforestation compared to the Amazon, forest degradation is high, making it a priority for REDD+ programs.

To gauge attitudes toward climate change efforts, researchers drew on interviews with over a hundred different actors from Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, including government officials, international agencies such the World Bank, non-governmental organisations including Greenpeace and the WWF, research groups, and representatives from the private sector such as logging and mining companies.

They found that the opportunities provided by REDD+ meant efforts to mitigate climate change often took precedence over adaptation in environmental policy discourse.

“Despite the importance of adaptation for a region with high level of poverty and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, the focus of the majority of the actors is on REDD+, purely due to the financial incentives it offers,” said Somorin.

The authors found that the private sector overwhelmingly favoured an approach based on mitigating the effects of climate change, with little regard for investing in adaptation to protect against the possible effects.  In governmental offices, maintaining mitigation and adaptation as separate avenues was seen as the optimal approach, while research and non-governmental groups favoured integrated action.  None of the actors supported a purely adaptive approach, and overall investing in adaptations was unpopular, except as a reactive policy.

Somorin notes that it seems it might take fully-fledged crises such that the current famine in East Africa to focus attention on adaptation efforts, but says that efforts need to be put in place before these events, warning that “adaptation should combine both reactive measures to current variability and anticipatory measures to future risks”.

As adaptation efforts are largely local in nature, there is concern that the focus on mitigation efforts will exclude local communities by contrast, undermining their effectiveness.  With REDD+ offering ample opportunities for sustainable development, adaptation efforts risk becoming marginalised as a small part of wider development.

This, says Somorin, may not meet the needs of people living in the Congo Basin forests. “Adaptation is a priority for the region while mitigation is an opportunity,” he says. “The actors and policy makers should not focus on achieving the opportunity at the expense of the priority. Rather, the opportunity should be implemented to the extent that it contributes to the priority.”

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