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Climate Change, Forests, and International Law: REDD’s Descent into Irrelevance

Posted by on Monday, March 17, 2014 in Articles, Vol. 47 No. 1, Vol. 47 No. 1, Volume 47, Volumes.

Forestry activities account for over 17 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2005, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have been negotiating a mechanism known as REDD—Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation—to provide an incentive for developing countries to reduce carbon emissions and limit deforestation at the same time. When REDD was first proposed, many commentators argued this mechanism would not only mitigate climate change but also provide biodiversity and forests with the hard international law regime that had so far been missing. These commentators appeared to hope REDD would develop into this kind of hard international law regime. Their hope is unlikely to be fulfilled. This Article focuses on two aspects of REDD negotiations between 2005 and 2012—the changing scope of the REDD mechanism and the parties’ decisions about the level of international oversight—and situates these developments within an overall international legal framework. Placing the negotiations in the context of REDD’s international legal framework exposes their significance. The true story of REDD demonstrates that REDD is developing into a country-driven, voluntary mechanism with limited international oversight and with a scope that makes it extremely difficult to implement. In that sense, REDD has far more in common with the international legal regime that currently governs forests and biodiversity than with the hard law of the international legal regime that governs climate change.   This Article concludes by pointing out two problems that result from not paying attention to the overall effect of the REDD negotiations. The first problem is misdirected focus. If the international community does not pay attention to the real story of REDD, it is likely to focus its energies on design questions at the international level and miss critically important aspects of REDD’s implementation at the national and subnational level involving both private and public initiatives. The second problem is misdirected accountability. REDD’s current scope makes it extremely difficult to administer and maintains an institutional infrastructure that lacks standardized and supranational oversight. Mechanisms for accountability for REDD’s success or failure are lacking.  Many commentators have warned that the biggest threat to climate change mitigation and biodiversity would be failure to implement REDD. This Article counters that the biggest threat to climate change mitigation and biodiversity is for REDD to go forward as it is currently being negotiated. If the international community does not pay attention to the real story of REDD, it will likely become nothing more than a cover for limited emissions reduction, weak forest protection, infringement of indigenous and local peoples’ rights, and harm to biodiversity.

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