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The Jargonaut: REDD All Over?
Should we fight climate change by paying rainforest farmers not to raze trees?

REDD (n.): A climate change mitigation strategy that involves paying landowners or the governments of developing countries to leave forested land undisturbed. It is an acronym for “Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation.”

When it comes to fighting climate change, it’s hard to underestimate the importance of saving trees. At the United Nations climate summit last month, an initiative to halt deforestation by 2030 was hailed as a goal that could save the carbon equivalent of taking every car in the world off the road.

There are two basic ways to reduce deforestation: REDD, which the UN wants to promote, is the carrot. Brazil, which has more rainforest than any other country in the world (by a lot), has been using the stick.

The stick works (or at least, it used to). Deforestation in Brazil has fallen 79 percent in a decade, and the country recently boasted four straight years of declining deforestation rates. In 1996, Brazil mandated that 80 percent of any plot of land in the Amazon region must be managed as a forest reserve. The federal government invested in technology, such as an advanced satellite system, to monitor compliance in real time. In 2006, most of the large purchasers of Brazilian soybeans joined an eight-year moratorium, agreeing not to buy beans grown on recently cleared land. The government suspended credit to farmers in counties with the highest deforestation rates.

This punitive, top-down approach was amazingly effective—until last year. With little warning, deforestation jumped 29 percent. What happened? Although Brazil is still doing better than most countries, many observers worry that the regulations are beginning to grate. Farmers have complained for years that the restrictions are too harsh, and large landowners successfully lobbied to loosen deforestation laws two years ago. The economy has stalled. The soybean moratorium ends this year.

Time for the carrot? For at least a decade, conservationists have been discussing a different approach: pay farmers to preserve their trees. Now known as REDD, the idea is gaining steam. A June paper in the mega-influential journal Science argued that “positive incentives” are now required to preserve the Amazon rainforest. That means, for the most part, cash from the central government. The same agency that administers the punitive forest preservation laws would transition to administering funds to compliant farmers. But cash isn’t the only option—the incentives can also include improving loan terms for tree-friendly farmers or reducing their government paperwork.

The REDD carrot may work on an international level as well. Developed countries could pay developing countries to maintain existing forests, and receive in return a carbon credit that would offset their own substantial carbon emissions.

Carrots, of course, come with their own caveats. Even the Science paper urging positive incentives in Brazil conceded that the programs would probably end up paying some farmers who would have left their trees alone for free. And deep-pocketed outsiders might buy up land from indigenous peoples, just to collect the payments for not cutting down the trees. An international carbon trading program could also allow rich countries to dodge the hard work of reducing their own emissions.

It’s crucial that the governments of developing countries and the United Nations’ REDD programme get this right. Brazil’s deforestation policies thus far have saved enough trees to remove 3.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—about one-half of the annual carbon emissions of the United States. That kind of green is worth a lot of, well, green.

For a deeper dive:

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Brian Palmer covers daily environmental news for OnEarth. His science writing has appeared in Slate, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and many other publications. MORE STORIES ➔
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Here's another solution: no government involvement. Just good old property rights. Let people actually own the forest. They will be driven by the profit motive to maintain the trees, harvest them and regrow them according to the demand for lumber. If you own the land you will think about your future income and will make sure there will always be a supply of wood. You will invest in new technology for growing trees bigger and faster and work towards whatever other unimagined ways to make money by supplying the world with an extremely useful resource and preserving forest at the same time.