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Finding the path through the forest

By Sissel Waage

Last week, the very first REDD+ Talks (à la TED Talks) took place in Sausalito, California, where speakers from Wildlife Works, Code REDD, Puma, Microsoft, and other organizations discussed benefits of REDD+ projects that go beyond carbon sequestration. Here are a few thoughts on the underlying pitch for REDD+.

(Note: This post originally appeared as a blog post on BSR. Sissel is Director of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services at BSR.)

How often do you hear a sales pitch offering "two for the price of one?"

When it comes to corporate sustainability initiatives, it seems almost too good to be true that an investment in reducing carbon emissions could also restore forests, protect wildlife, provide a water source for a drought-ridden community, and generate the funds for health care programs and schools in a village in Kenya.

But the (seemingly arcane) domain of REDD+ is showing us that all of these benefits are possible.

For more than 20 years, forest-carbon programs have offered companies a way to offset carbon emissions through maintaining standing forests, which is critical, given that deforestation and land degradation account for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Forest carbon and REDD+ projects are based on the simple rationale that trees absorb carbon and release oxygen. By ensuring that forests are not cut down, or are re-planted, carbon stocks are maintained on the landscape rather than being dispersed into the atmosphere.

These projects also provide income for the local communities--in terms of payments to maintain standing forests as well as, in some cases, additional income from jobs to plant and restore forests.

Experience with REDD+ is now well established. According to the Ecosystem Marketplace (EM), in 2011, forest-carbon finance transactions worth US$237 million occurred on 18 million hectares in 40 countries.

Last week, I participated in the first REDD+ Talks event, where speakers from Wildlife Works, Code REDD, Puma, Microsoft, and other organizations described the numerous benefits of REDD+ projects that go beyond sequestering greenhouse gas emissions. The relevance of this work is wide-ranging and includes many benefits:

  • For companies with carbon goals: REDD+ provides a robust, verifiable way to offset emissions.
  • For companies with community-engagement objectives, particularly where they source raw materials and/or operate facilities: REDD+ offers the opportunity to invest in rural "green infrastructure"--in the form of the resilient forests, habitat for wildlife, and expanses of land that are buffered from landslides and able to filter water as well as refill underground aquifers. At the same time, it provides the community with social benefits from the new source of income that they can use to address issues like access to water, health care, education, and even jobs.
  • For companies interested in investments in biodiversity and ecosystem services: REDD+ provides a learning laboratory on how to measure and monitor ecological structure and function as well as the flow of ecosystem services.

It is likely that the biggest opportunity of REDD+ will be from this last point. In the coming years, techniques used to measure and monitor investments in forests can be adapted and expanded to improve corporate measurement and management of other sustainability challenges--particularly related to growing questions around business impacts and dependencies on natural capital, biodiversity, and ecosystem services.

The journey is sometimes the destination. In the case of REDD+, the journey itself offers great returns.

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