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

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Amazon birds -- iStockphoto
Two macaws in the Amazon.
Photo ©

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.


Carlos A. Nobre

Senior Scientist, Brazilian National Space Research Institute

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