What is the biggest challenge the institutional governance of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation faces?

Source: Julien Hulin, 2020
Source: Charlie Hamilton James, 2020

Each year, 13 million hectares of forest are cleared for land use (Boccucci, 2014). Mario Boccucci, head of the UN-REDD programme, describes what he terms the “Kuznets curve of deforestation”. Historically, countries have tended to engage in large-scale forest land conversion as they develop before scaling back these efforts and eventually allowing forests to regrow. Such a model of development simply cannot continue. Deforestation is responsible for an estimated nearly 20% of anthropogenic global greenhouse gas emissions per annum (IPCC, 2007). Further, tropical forest ecosystems are more vulnerable than their temperate and boreal counterparts as regrowth rates are markedly slower (Boccucci, 2014). As a result, deforestation in tropical countries poses an acute risk to some of the world’s largest terrestrial carbon sinks (Pan et al., 2011).

Source: UN-REDD, 2018

As a governance tool to mitigate climate change through forest management, REDD was first negotiated under the UNFCCC in 2005 at COP11. REDD later became REDD+ as broader aspects of governance were recognised as playing an important role in forest conservation. REDD+ is an acronym for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, conserving and enhancing forest carbon stocks, and sustainably managing forests” (Corbera and Schroeder, 2011). This is to be achieved through a performance-based framework for forest ecosystem conservation (Phelps et al., 2010). REDD+ is built on the concept of payments for ecosystem services which posits that those who benefit should fund those who conserve ecosystems (Wunder, 2005). In the context of REDD+, financial incentives are offered for forest protection (International Finance Corporation, 2016).

UN-REDD was created to facilitate the promotion of enabling conditions for REDD+ countries (Angelsen et al., 2009). UN-REDD engages with participating countries through the provision of financial incentives and the sharing of expertise in REDD+ implementation (Angelsen et al., 2009).

The infographic on the left charts the history of REDD+ and UN-REDD. Mario Boccucci explains the role of UN-REDD in this podcast clip below.

Audio excerpt from Mario Boccucci, head of the UN-REDD Programme, at COP24

Despite promising global engagement with the REDD+ programme and UN-REDD, the institutional governance of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation faces considerable institutional challenges. Of these many challenges, three will receive critical attention in this blog post as we span the institutional lifecycle of the REDD+ regime and UN-REDD. Namely the institutional challenges of problem framing, issues arising from regime complexity, and organisational pathologies resulting from difficulties gauging institutional effectiveness will be analysed in turn. I will argue that regime complexity is the biggest challenge the institutional governance of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation faces. But first, we shall turn our attention to problem framing.

Source: Joris Von Alphen, 2019

Problem Framing

In the table we have a selection of five definitions of deforestation. The definitions agree on the premise that deforestation is the loss of forest landmass. The UNFCCC (2001) and the Green Elephant Show (2021) attribute solely anthropogenic drivers to deforestation. However, the FOA (2001) and the IUCN (2021) do not specify anthropogenic involvement while the National Geographic (2019) attributes both anthropogenic and natural drivers to deforestation. The definition of deforestation, though different descriptions of drivers exist, is a largely agreed upon term. This contrasts with the problem framing of deforestation which is contested in the realm global environmental governance.

O’Neill (2017), through the work of David Snow, defines problem framing as “conscious and strategic efforts by groups of people to fashion shared understandings of the world and of themselves that legitimate and motivate collective action.” A single problem can have multiple framings. For example, when we look at the sources of international environmental problems, some may argue the problem arose as a result of insufficient knowledge whereas others may argue that this same problem was simply the result of insufficient concern (Mitchell, 2009).

One can categorise problem framings into various typologies (O’Neill, 2017). Two common problem framing typologies can be applied to the governance of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. First, local-accumulative environmental problems occur at the local scale but can accumulate to result in global repercussions. Due to the local causes of such environmental problems, the creation of treaties is often insufficient to enact positive change (Conca et al., 2006). This is due to issues arising from multiscalarity and concerns from states that treaties on such problems may result in the ceding of sovereignty (O’Neill, 2017). Deforestation has been described as one such local-accumulative problem (O’Neill, 2017). Framing deforestation in such a manner encourages us to avoid (I believe correctly) a treaty-based institutional response. However, the second typology which has been used to frame greenhouse gas emissions resulting from deforestation and forest degradation is more problematic.

The typology of a global tragedy of the commons to describe greenhouse gas emissions resulting from deforestation is problematic in part due to the political response it generates. For Bernstein and Hoffmann(2019) the framing of a ‘global commons’ encourages collective action through multilateral treaties, which some states perceive as a challenge to sovereignty. As a challenge to the global commons framing, Bernstein and Hoffmann (2019) offer the theorisation of a fractal structure to global environmental problems. The ‘fractal carbon trap’ has three core elements. First the carbon fractal self-organises absent from central planning. Second, as a problem structure, the carbon fractal witnesses metaphorical self-symmetry across scale. Third, mechanisms operating across scales from the local to the global are interdependent are reinforcing.

When we take the concept of deforestation and attempt to frame it as a fractal problem, we can build on local-accumulative concepts whilst avoiding the pitfalls of the ‘global commons’. This will help us tackle the institutional challenges associated with problem framing. Bernstein and Hoffmann (2019) push for multiscalar responses to the carbon fractal. UN-REDD’s nested approach to governance, the deliberate engagement with actors across multiple scales (Kashwan, 2014), demonstrates the capacity of the institution to tackle deforestation in response to the fractal framing of the problem structure.

Source: Mark Graf, 2018

Regime complexity

Problem framing shares a close relationship with the institutional dynamics involved in the proposed solution. The infographic below paints a simple picture of how we move from problem framing to regime implementation.

Source: Michael Atkinson

It is clear that deforestation and associated greenhouse gas emissions are framed as a multiscalar and complex problem, so are the regimes involved in its governance.

The biggest challenge facing the governance of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation is the complexity of institutional actors involved in its management. Regime complexity is defined by Alter and Meunier (2009) as “the presence of nested, partially overlapping, and parallel international regimes that are not hierarchically ordered.” The complexity of the REDD+ regime creates two governance problems for institutional actors.

REDD+ Standards, source: Angelsen et al., 2009

The first challenge is a slight adaptation of the concept of forum shopping: “actors select…international venues based on where they are best able to promote specific policy preferences, with the goal of eliciting a decision that favours their interests” (Alter and Meunier, 2009). Due to the complexity of the REDD+ regime, I would suggest that we may witness what could be described as ‘standards shopping’. Here, buyers and sellers on the global carbon market select standards that best favour their interests. Currently, multiple REDD+ standards exist. Angelsen et al., 2009 have composed a table displaying a selection of REDD+ standards which compares their scope and assessment processes.

The two most prominent REDD+ standards vary significantly from one another. The REDD+ Social and Environmental Standards (SES) (2014) are orchestrated at the state level in consultation with government programmes. The scalar composition of REDD+ SES (2014) varies quite considerably from the Climate, Community, and Biodiversity (CCB) Standards (Milbank et al., 2018). The CCB standards instead offer third-party verification for REDD+ projects (Milbank et al., 2018). The difference in the scale of examination between these two standards-setting bodies allows for the engagement of a complex array of actors in REDD+. The wide selection of standards may allow potential buyers of forest ecosystem services to purchase cheaper verified carbon units. It may also allow sellers to reduce the costs required to achieve certification. This could cause a race to the bottom in REDD+ markets. If such a chain of events were to occur, the capacity of REDD+ and UN-REDD as a faciliatory body to govern emissions from deforestation and forest degradation could drastically subside. This presents a potential major challenge for UN-REDD as well as other actors involved in the governance of the REDD+ programme.

A second problem associated with the challenge of regime complexity is the formation of small group environments (Alter and Meunier, 2009). Alter and Meunier (2009) argue that small group environments frequently form in particularly technical issue domains. Such groups have a tendency to be insular and engage in ‘group think’ (Alter and Meunier, 2009). Marketizing carbon is a technically complex process (Lund et al., 2017) requiring ecological expertise, technological know-how, and economic clarity. Due to the technical complications associated with REDD+, expert groups may become siloed from broader efforts to engage in carbon markets. Environmental governance of ecological problems has historically suffered from expertise siloing and minimal cross-disciplinary collaboration. REDD+ may suffer the same fate.

Source: Fred Začek, 2018

Difficulties measuring regime effectiveness and the resulting institutional pathologies

The technical challenges associated with the marketisation of carbon stem in part from difficulties measuring the rate of carbon sequestration in forest ecosystems (Lund et al., 2017). Difficulty measuring carbon sequestration leads to the further challenge of measuring the effectiveness of REDD+. Young (2011) defines the effectiveness of international environmental regimes as “the extent to which [they]…contribute to solving or mitigating the problems that motivated their creation.” This can be calculated by comparing the course of events under a governance regime to the non-regime counterfactual (Young, 2011). Data collection for such calculations is particularly difficult for the REDD+ regime. These calculations can be complicated further when we consider the temporal aspects of regime effectiveness (Grundig, 2012).

The technical difficulties calculating the effectiveness of REDD+ as an environmental regime insulates UN-REDD from empirical performance measurements. As well as the complications involved in measuring forest ecosystem carbon sequestration, the concept of additionality adds another challenge. Additionality, in this context, could be seen as a socio-economic gauge of the effectiveness of the REDD+ regime. Additionality describes the value added to ecosystem services as a result of their conservation compared to what would have been the case under the non-existence of payments (Salas et al., 2018). Suppose a country participating in REDD+, facilitated by UN-REDD, opts to conserve an area of forest that is not under threat of deforestation or forest degradation. The payments for forest ecosystem services have no impact on the protection of such ecosystems assuming, regardless of conservation efforts, land conversion would not take place. These same payments would be far more effective if targeted at areas at risk of acute deforestation to make way for land conversion. Thus, a failure to accurately measure the additionality of REDD+ payments could significantly overrate the effectiveness of the work of UN-REDD even if carbon sequestration rates are accurately counted. This further insulates UN-REDD from feedback on its effectiveness as an environmental institution (Barnett and Finnemore, 1999).

Source: John Atkinson (nice pic dad)

Barnett and Finnemore (1999) argue that institutions “insulated from feedback develop internal cultures and world views that don’t promote the expectations of those outside the organisation who created it and whom it serves”. Insulated from critique, UN-REDD may become increasingly valued for what it represents rather than what it does (Barnett and Finnemore, 1999). Under such conditions, UN-REDD would continue to represent the institutional voice on forest ecosystem conservation yet play little role in the proactive protection of global forest stocks. This may be doubly harmful as its symbolic role as an institutional actor may prevent a new (potentially more effective) form of governance from taking its place, stalling the protection of forests.

However, if opportunity costs were to be included in REDD+ payments, funds could be targeted towards areas most at-risk of land conversion. Though costing more per unit of land conserved, a payment mechanism that included opportunity costs encourages stakeholders to consider conservation over conversion. The targeting of payments for forest ecosystem services in this manner would likely result in lower global forest conservation by unit area. Despite this, valuing opportunity costs into ecosystem payments would have a greater impact in reducing the global rate of deforestation. Such a formulation of REDD+ payments encourage tighter monitoring of the regime’s effectiveness. With effectiveness more accurately gauged, UN-REDD can work towards promoting the expectations of those whom it serves.

Mario Boccucci discusses how to improve the effectiveness of international environmental organisations more broadly in this podcast clip.

Audio excerpt from Mario Boccucci, head of the UN-REDD Programme, at COP24
Source: Stefano Unterthiner, 2017


The three challenges facing the institutional governance of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation are deeply interconnected. These challenges span the institutional lifecycle of UN-REDD and the REDD+ regime. The framing of the problem of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation poses a challenge to UN-REDD. Conceptualising emissions as a global tragedy of the commons often leads down a reductionist route to multilateral treaties. Such treaties are ineffective in the realm of forest governance. It is perhaps better to frame emissions from deforestation and forest degradation as part of a wider fractal structure. This encourages the multiscalar forms of forest governance required to reduce deforestation. However, such a framing paints a complicated picture of forest governance.

This complex problem framing results in a complex governance regime. It is the regime complexity of efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation that presents the biggest challenge to REDD+ and UN-REDD. There are two prominent reasons for this. The first is that the complexity of the REDD+ regime has resulted in a vast array of REDD+ standards. This creates ambiguity which could be exploited by both buyers and sellers on the carbon market at the expense of forest conservation. The second reason is the formation of small group environments, a problem that has plagued ecological governance historically. The technical expertise required to measure forest carbon stocks and carbon sequestration could lead to siloed expert groups which fail to engage with one another across disciplines. The combination of these two problems presents the biggest challenge to the institutional governance of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. A failure to standardise standards and a splintering of governance actors could spell disaster for the REDD+ regime and UN-REDD as a faciliatory body.

As a result of the regime complexity REDD+, the technical difficulties measuring carbon stocks, and the socio-economic difficulties in gauging additionality, UN-REDD may become insulated from empirical performance measurement. Such insulation may witness UN-REDD drift away from fulfilling its ambitions to correctly marketise carbon sequestration in forests. If this were to happen, UN-REDD would be little more than a symbol for forest conservation. However, if UN-REDD were to further pursue the incorporation of additionality into verified carbon credits, its performance could be more accuratelty measured. This opens the agency to the scrutiny required to ensure the needs of the communities it intends to serve are met.

Source: Sergey Gorshkov, 2020

Despite the challenges facing the REDD+ regime and UN-REDD, these obstacles are surpassable. With targeted tweaks to the governance of REDD+, the regime can realise its potential as a valuable tool for forest conservation and climate change mitigation.



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