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Do we still need REDD if deforestation is decreasing in the Amazon?

Carlos A. Nobre's picture
Amazon birds -- iStockphoto
Two macaws in the Amazon.
Photo © istockphoto.com

Although the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen badly failed to achieve legally binding agreements, including on the specific mechanism of REDD (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), there was nevertheless a general sense that this mechanism is something worth pursuing. Meetings and discussions continued to take place after the conference was over, and a fund of US$ 10 billion is being set up to promote initial steps for tropical developing countries to prepare for REDD.

What lessons can be learned from the Brazilian Amazon, where deforestation rates have been steadily declining for 5 years?

Compared to estimates of land-cover change emissions from elsewhere in the tropics, estimates in the Brazilian Amazon tend to be relatively more certain because they are calculated from annual, satellite-based monitoring of land cover change for over two decades for the Brazilian portion of the Amazon. That is the work of the PRODES Project carried out by the National Institute of Space Research (INPE) of Brazil. 

Deforestation in the Amazon changes a lot from year to year. The proximate causes are not totally known. They have to do with economic drivers such as prices of commodities (beef, soy, etc.), the opening of roads, but they are also influenced by the effectiveness of law enforcement to curb illegal deforestation.

The latter may have played a key role in reducing deforestation in the last 5 years. During that period, annual deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon plummeted from over 27 thousand km2 (August 2003-July 2004) to around 7 thousand km2 (August 2008-July 2009), an amazing 74% reduction over 5 years!

Taking into account the large variations of deforestation from year to year in the last 10 years, estimates of annual CO2 emissions from land use change in the Amazon tally in the range 0.1 to 0.3 gigatons of carbon (GtC), with a likely mean value of 0.15 GtC. That represents a contribution of approximately 1 to 3% of global emissions of C02, or roughly 10% of the global CO2 emissions due to tropical land cover change.

Some critics of the REDD mechanism, enthused by this decline, claim that all this reduction is due to law enforcement and that compensatory mechanisms should not be created simply to implement the rule of law. In other words, it is the responsibility of democratic nations to enforce the law and no financial incentives should be provided to that end.

This line of reasoning is fallacious for more than one reason.

First, it is very unlikely that all the observed deforestation reductions in Brazil over the last 5 years can be attributed to law enforcement only.

Secondly, curbing illegal activities such as illegal clear cutting, logging and biomass burning is necessary, but not a sufficient condition to ensure lasting reductions of deforestation. At the best, it can slow down deforestation rates, which eventually will grow back during the next economic boom. The economic rationale of rural development in the Amazon rests on the continued expansion of the agricultural frontier.

Emissions reductions will only become permanent if coupled with a new economic paradigm for tropical forests -- a paradigm that still needs to be properly developed and applied, in which economic wealth is obtained from standing forests and from the ecosystems services that they provide. It would be wise to channel some of the REDD funding mechanisms to promote a necessary new paradigm for the global tropics.

Comments

Submitted by Brent on
The forests are still being chopped down, just at a lower rate than normal. Plus you are only looking at Amazon. Here in Malaysia the government just announced they want to dramatically increase their rubber tapping plantations. You think the land required for this will be rice fields or primary jungle? An internationally agreed financial incentive such as REDD would make a big difference to every country where deforestation is happening or planned.

Submitted by Carlos Nobre on
Don't be misled by the title of the article. My conclusion is that REDD is a necessary condition to start changing unsustainable trajectories all over the global Tropics, including the Amazon. However, it may not be a sufficient condition to ensure that tropical deforestation will continuosly decline globally. For that, we need a new economic paradign for the economic use of tropical forestst sustainably. REDD can be one element of such new development model for the Tropics, but it will not be the whole story ...

Submitted by Michael Levitsky on
I am sure that REDD will do much to improve the economic framework to help preserve the Amazon. However, is there any reason not to support greatly improved law enforcement now, and reward its achievements? It may be having a real effect in itself, and it should also be encouraged as a part of REDD. How workable will a REDD scheme be if it does not take place in the context of a strong rule of law? In countries such as Canada and the US, with very large forest stocks, there are few reports of large scale illegal deforestation. I presume the long term development strategy for Brazil is to attain a level where it is the law itself, accompanied by a strong national economic framework, that sets environmental boundaries.

Submitted by Carlos Nobre on
I am in full agrement with the statement that effective rule of law in the Amazon is essential even to the functioning of REDD and mandatory for implementing a new paradigm for the global Tropics. Although we still lack substantial scientific evidence on the relative weight of renewed law enforcement efforts for the very significant decline in Brazilian Amazon deforestation rates in the last 5 years, it would be silly to ignore that it may have contributed a great deal to that reduction.

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