In a new CIFOR publication, Analysing REDD+: Challenges and Choices, launched this week on the sidelines of the Rio +20 summit, CIFOR scientist Louis Verchot and his team lay out the “stepwise approach” to setting Reference Emissions Levels (RELs.)
Developing RELs is a crucial first step if REDD+, a UN-backed scheme that aims to reduce global carbon emissions by paying tropical countries to slow deforestation, is to work, says Verchot.
“Reference emissions levels are the reference point from which you begin counting how much emissions reductions you’ve been able to achieve. RELs set up the counterfactual, of how much emissions would have occurred in the absence of REDD+ activities to reduce the emissions,” he said.
He says RELs are the key both to measuring how effective REDD+ projects have been – and also for calculating how much should be paid to those reducing emissions.
But he says deciding exactly what those levels should be is not easy.
“It’s a little complicated to set up because it’s the counterfactual, it’s something that did not happen.”
“There’s a technical side to it, detecting how much deforestation has happened in the past, what have been the key causes or drivers of deforestation, and reasonable expectations about the key causes or the drivers of deforestation in the future.”
“Do you expect prices of agricultural commodities to increase? Do you expect mining to be expanded? Do you expect oil palm to expand, or do you expect prices to stagnate and plantation expansion to slow down?”
He says there’s a certain amount of predicting the future involved.
“Under normal circumstances without much variation in the economy you could certainly expect the last five years to be a good predictor of the next five years. Predicting deviations from past trends is nearly impossible. Nobody expected the financial crisis, for example”.
“If you go through a financial crisis and the returns from land decrease , you would expect a strong reduction in conversion of forested areas. If you get a price spike, if food prices go up, you would expect agricultural land to expand.”
“And so predicting some of these flashpoints is very difficult, and that’s where modelling approaches tend to fail.”
In addition to these technical considerations in setting RELs, he says, there is a political dimension.
“Because there are countries or groups that fund REDD, and countries or groups that receive the money for emissions reductions, both sides need to agree on the baseline and the measures of performance. As a result of these agreements, countries will undertake a set of activities to reduce emissions against an expected financial return for their efforts. So that’s where the negotiation comes in.”
One of the major problems with setting reference levels is the fact that many tropical forest countries lack the institutional capacity and data collection resources to accurately estimate their forest carbon stocks and drivers of deforestation.
However, the new “step-wise” method developed by the CIFOR team, and adopted at the UNFCCC talks in Durban in 2011, offers a way to tackle this problem.
The approach allows countries to start setting their RELs now, using deforestation data that everyone can access.
It’s not as accurate or precise as country-specific data taking into account forest types and national circumstances, says Verchot, but the stepwise approach offers pathways by which a country can transition to more complex and less uncertain estimates as data improves.
“We set out a pathway of how you go from very basic information to getting more complete information so that you get better estimates, more accurate estimates, and less bias. Each ‘step’ lists a number of improvements which could be made as countries set up a REDD+ programme.”
“We’ve laid out how the different levels of collecting these types of data – the deforestation data, the carbon content data, the carbon density data –would actually change when you’re moving from a readiness phase to a demonstration activity phase, to when you move up to full-scale compensation for emissions reductions.”
“It’s solutions-oriented, it says here’s how you get started, and here are some of the next steps you would want to go through to improve your estimates. So to the extent that countries find it useful, and to the extent that it allows everybody to get in the game early, I think that it’s a positive thing.”
What’s still missing, Verchot says, is the incentive for countries to transition beyond the first step.
“The incentive is going to come when money is on the table, and that’s one of the things that’s missing right now in the negotiations, and that’s one of the reasons countries aren’t moving so fast on this.”
“Right now everything is in the readiness phase, there’s no long-term certainty of funding for REDD+, and that’s one of the things that our research is showing is a major impediment to REDD+ moving forward,” he said.
But until then, Verchot says setting reference levels using this method can at least move countries a step closer to REDD+.
“Now a country can go to another country and say, ‘We think our emissions levels are this, and they’re going to be this for the next five years. So let’s talk about what sort of compensation we can get, and we can talk about what kind of emissions reductions we’re ready to commit to.”
“So it sets the benchmark from which the international negotiations can happen, both from the finance side and the emissions reductions side.”
“It’s the first step.”