Carbon Controversy: Looking Into the REDD+ Programme

by Vincent Diringer

When looking at the REDD+ (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries) programme at surface-level, there is reason to believe that this piece of international policy has the ability to support the sustainable development goals, while empowering local communities and fighting the climate crisis [1]. However, once you begin to look into how the programme runs in the field, issues abound: carbon leakages, controversial calculation models, vague definitions of key points, stilted interpretations of the wording, and unwarranted financial compensations [2-4]. 

As geochemist Foster Brown tells ProPublica, “There are a whole bunch of problems with it. What is the alternative?” [2].

What is the REDD+ programme?

The REDD+ programme sets out to help curb carbon emissions by incentivizing countries to protect their forestry resources through third-party funding for local projects [1]. It functions relatively simply: a hectare of forest is given a monetary value based on how much carbon it is deemed to be absorbing or has fixated. If it isn’t cut down a government can then extrapolate that value and claim it from financiers supporting the programme. Should protection of these areas also result in the conservation of biodiversity or food and water sources, the reward for maintaining them rises [1]. 

In action, this means that nations like Indonesia can issue a claim on part of Norway’s US $1 billion REDD+ fund based on continued protection of their natural resources, and the carbon emissions they have absorbed as a result [4, 5]. The checks and balances put in place by policy-makers mean that Indonesia needs to show the calculations they’ve made to reach their demands. If Norway agrees with the scientific modelling and statistical outputs presented, it can release part of the funds, which Indonesia can put towards further protecting its forests. While this seems simple on paper, the reality is very, very different [2, 4].

The complexities involved

Indonesia has famously labelled palm oil plantations as revegetation projects, therefore redefining the rampant destruction of their rainforests and allowing their use as  land for the desirable monoculture [6]. As such, Indonesia is technically creating new forests. Scientists very clearly disagree with this assumption – natural rainforests provide many more ecosystem services and environmental benefits than palm oil plantations [7]. This change in definition was tackled head on by Norwegian regulators and factored into the nation’s decision to release US $56 million to Indonesia for its efforts [8, 9].

While this is both an example of one nation trying to muddy the waters and another setting the record straight, there remain core issues within this case study. From debates over how to properly calculate carbon absorption, to accounting for leakages, or how effective monitoring and estimates have been, Indonesia highlights the issues of large-scale REDD+ programmes [2, 10]. 

Similar criticism has been levelled at REDD+ projects in Brazil, where deforestation has been left unchecked yet financial compensation has been released [11, 12]. Meanwhile, warning flags have been raised about how Australia is likely to use REDD+ as an offset for its first-world leading deforestation programmes, this despite most REDD+ projects failing to meet offset standards [13].

Considering the sizeable gaps between policy and practice, the “business-as-usual” stance promoted by the programme, and the fact that nations are still eligible for funding despite poor performances outside of the scope of the programme, it is easy to see why REDD+ has often been labelled a failure [2]. Here, Indonesia once again serves as a poignant example. Following the US $56 million it secured from Norway, the nation went on to successfully claim US $104 million from another United Nations forestry fund linked to REDD+ using methods that raised eyebrows, such as large timeframes and alleged double counting of credits [4]. Is this newfound funding source being used effectively? 

Activists on the ground have noted that the government has opted to not protect secondary rainforests, and researchers have identified that 83% of the country’s unprotected and vulnerable forestry resources are at risk of being replaced by palm oil plantations [4, 14]. Coupled with Indonesia’s poor treatment of the indigenous communities, who are often displaced from their forests, critics are saying that programmes like REDD+, on top of being financially flawed, aren’t fulfilling their social mandate either [4, 15].

“There are a whole bunch of problems with it. What is the alternative?”

Foster Brown

What are the benefits of REDD+?

For all the issues that REDD+ highlightS, it does have its benefits. Researchers note that, despite its shortcomings, the programme provides avenues for monitoring of forestry resources in a range of countries that weren’t there previously [2]. Additionally, it ensures that rainforests maintain a presence in global policy, providing opportunities for further capacity-building [16- 18]. On small scale projects, REDD+ has seen some progress, such as the Kasigau Project in Kenya and the Southern Cardamom Project in Cambodia [19, 20]. These projects have successfully managed to preserve biodiversity, create job opportunities for local communities and work towards the sustainable development goals – just as REDD+ is set out to do.

These successes can be seen elsewhere around the world, mostly in small-scale projects or within developing nations with strong local stakeholders. However, they remain shrouded by the larger failures of the policy [17]. “Perfection can be the enemy of delivery,” Brown posits [2]. It is easy to point out the shortcomings of a programme, but it is usually a lot harder to find a workable solution for them. REDD+ is by no means a perfect policy, but the alternative is far worse. 


[1] UNFCCC, “REDD+”, URL:  [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[2] Lisa Song & Paula Moura, 2019, “An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth: Why Carbon Credits for Forest Preservation may be Worse Than Nothing”, ProPublica, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[3] Patrick Greenfield, 2021, “Carbon offsets used by major airlines based on flawed system, warn experts”, The Guardian, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[4] Hans Nicholas Jong, 2020, “Experts question integrity of Indonesia’s claim of avoided deforestation”, Mongabay, URL:  [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[5] Hans Nicholas Jong, 2019, “Indonesia to get first payment from Norway under $1b REDD+ scheme” Mongabay, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[6] Hans Nicholas Jong, 2018, “Is a plantation a forest? Indonesia says yes, as it touts a drop in deforestation”, Mongabay, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[7] Zoë Schlanger, 2019, “The global demand for palm oil is driving the fires in Indonesia”, Quartz, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[8] Norwegian Government, 2020, “Norway will pay 530 million NOK for reduced deforestation in Indonesia”, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[9] Hans Nicholas Jong, 2020, “Indonesia to receive $56m payment from Norway for reducing deforestation”, Mongabay, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[10] Peter Yeung, 2021, “As COP26 looms and tropical deforestation soars, REDD+ debate roars on”, Mongabay, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[11] Rhett A. Butler, 2015, “Norway pays Brazil $1B to fulfill pledge for curbing deforestation”, Mongabay, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[12] Sarah Sax, 2019, “Brazil to receive first-ever results-based REDD+ payment, but concerns remain”, Mongabay, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[13] Andrew Mackintosh, 2012, “The Australia clause and REDD: A cautionary tale”, Climatic Change 112, 169-188
[14] Felix K.S. Lim, L. Roman Carrasco, Jolian McHardy & David P. Edwards, D. P., 2019, “Land rents drive oil palm expansion dynamics in Indonesia”, Environmental Research Letters 14(7), 074024
[15] Human Rights Watch, 2019, “Indonesia: Indigenous Peoples Losing Their Forests”, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[16] UNFCCC, “Calls Increase to Use Carbon Pricing as an Effective Climate Action Tool”, URL:  [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[17] Monica Evans, 2018, “Reimagining REDD+: 10 years on, making success a reality”, Landscape News, URL: [Accessed July 22, 2021]
[18] Iben Nathan & Maya Pasgaard, 2017, “Is REDD+ effective, efficient, and equitable? Learning from a REDD+ project in Northern Cambodia”, Geoforum 83, 26-3
[19] Stand For Trees, 2021, “Kasigau Wildlife Sanctuary”, URL: [Accessed July 29, 2021]
[20] Wildlife Alliance, 2021, “THE REDD+ PROJECT”, URL: [Accessed July 29, 2021]
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