News | COP26 - Climate Justice “We Need to Protect Forests for Adaptation, Not Mitigation”

Melissa Moreano on REDD+ at COP26 and the need to change the discourse around forests and climate change


A staff member from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture takes carbon measurements as part of a REDD+ workshop in the Reserva Natural El Hatico near Palmira, Colombia. CC BY-SA 2.0, Photo: CIAT/Neil Palmer

Nature-based solutions are a key issue in the climate negotiations being held at the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) of the UN Climate Convention, currently taking place in Glasgow. One of the proposed solutions is Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), heavily promoted by the UN REDD+ Programme, which is designed to incentivize developing nations to retain their forests.

Melissa Moreano is a member of the Collective of Critical Geography of Ecuador and the Latin American and the Caribbean Platform for Climate Justice. She is also a researcher and professor at the Simón Bolívar Andean University in Quito.

But is the approach really effective? Juliane Schumacher from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation spoke with scientist and environmental activist Melissa Moreano about the difficulties in following the COP26 negotiations this year and the reality behind REDD+ and other false solutions promoted to solve the climate crisis in Glasgow.

Melissa, you’ve worked for on REDD+ for many years. Can you briefly explain what REDD+ and the idea behind it is?

REDD stands for Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. It’s a mechanism within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, aimed at reducing the emission of carbon dioxide and other gases associated with deforestation. When you cut trees, it emits carbon, so a series of mechanisms were created within the UNFCCC to avoid these emissions, based on payments for the service of capturing and storing carbon by forests.

REDD+ was deeply controversial from the beginning, especially among movements from the Global South. Can you say why they opposed the instrument so fiercely?

Environmental groups in Latin America contested, and still contest, REDD+ and other mechanism related to carbon markets. In the beginning — and even today — there were many cases where the carbon credits produced by forest projects in reality had no value, they were not reducing emissions at all. There were massive scams in many countries.

At the same time, the projects put forest communities in danger. In countries like Nigeria or Brazil, there was this kind of militarized conservation of carbon, where people were evicted and lost their right to the forest. In Mexico, Chiapas, or in Costa Rica, REDD+ was opposed by indigenous people because there was a notion that through REDD they would lose their territorial rights.

But the other problem with this financial mechanism that allegedly protects forests is it just allows the industrial complex to continuing emitting CO2 instead of forcing them to really cut their emissions.

The concept of REDD+ was first introduced into the UN climate negotiations in 2005. How has it changed over the years? And how is it being discussed in Glasgow?

At the beginning, REDD+ was solely about preventing deforestation and promoting reforestation. You had this pervasive effect that some governments were actually clearing mature forests and establishing plantations in their place because the trees, while still growing, need to capture more carbon. In reaction to this, some safeguards were included into the concept, some concepts and terms intended to clarify what had to be achieved — that when preventing deforestation, you also have to protect biodiversity and work towards the Sustainable Development Goals. There are also social safeguards, to supposedly promote participation from the bottom up and include grassroots organizations, indigenous people, local communities in these projects.

So it’s been a long way since the beginning of the mechanism, but still, it remains a debate whether REDD+ should be part of the carbon markets or not, if it should be used to offset emissions or not. There is no problem with trying to conserve forests or prevent deforestation. The problem is that some countries or companies could use the carbon stored in these forests to avoid real actions on emissions. And if you put forests on the market, you also have negative effects in terms of who is the owner, how local communities and indigenous people relate to it, and how their territorial rights to use the forest are affected.

People have been saying REDD+ is dead for some time now. For years, the concept was not advancing due to technical and conceptual problems. Then it got included prominently in the Paris Agreement.

Yes, REDD+ has a whole article in the Paris Agreement. The convention and also many forested countries say that forests are the future, the main way to fight climate change, that we have to use the capacity of the forests to store and capture carbon. We call this a false solution because of the problems I mentioned before.

But I think REDD+ is just waiting for what happens with Article 6 of the Paris Agreement in the negotiations. Article 6 will decide on the financial mechanisms that are going to be set in place, including market mechanisms, non-market mechanisms and sustainable development mechanisms. At this COP, negotiators are discussing how these market mechanisms are going to work.

Are you following the discussions in Glasgow?

Unfortunately, we were unable to get into the negotiations. I’ve been here since Monday trying to follow the negotiations on Article 6, but we weren’t allowed into the room. The conference organizer say it’s because of the limited number of people allowed in the room that most observer groups, like environmental or human rights groups, are not allowed to enter.

I know from my colleagues who are following the negotiations that they’re fighting hard to maintain the human rights language inside the article. So they are going to put these market mechanisms in place, and my impression is that they are using the climate emergency to say: we need the market, it is more efficient, it will help to transfer funds.

If these market mechanisms and instruments like REDD+ are false solutions, what would be good solutions that help to stop global warming and protect forests?

The real solution is to stop extracting fossil fuels. Of course, we can’t stop extraction overnight, we have to plan the transition away from fossil fuels, but we have to start doing it. All of this REDD+, climate-smart agriculture, geoengineering — the false solutions — stand to allow the polluters to pollute, to offset emissions. So the first solution would be to take the reduction goals seriously, without emission trading, without offsetting.

The second would be not to try to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy without changing the structure, the consumption, and the use pattern of energy. We are witnessing now, in our countries, growing pressure to extract minerals like copper, gold, lithium, and nickel. They are all used for the infamous energy transition. This means we have to reframe the discourse around transition.

Third, to protect we need to help the communities. Nowadays, the main drivers of deforestation in my country, Ecuador, are large-scale mining, oil development, and the expansion of the agricultural frontier for agribusiness, that means crops for exportation. So the problem of deforestation is related to the global food system.

The final thing I want to share is that there’s nothing wrong with putting in place measures to protect forests, but we have to change from saying that we are protecting forests for mitigation to saying that we are protecting forests for adaptation — if we want to maintain the climate change discourse in relation to forests. If we do protect forests for adaptation, this is very different than saying we do this because they capture and store carbon. A forest is a part of an ecosystem that provides space for other species to live, it’s a space for life. And that’s why we need to protect it — not because it is pumping carbon out of the air.