Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) is to me still a very good idea. Interpreting REDD+ as an objective, we need to eliminate most forest emissions if we are to limit global warming to 2°C. Interpreting REDD+ as a policy instrument, I also think the basic idea underlying REDD+ is sound: create economic incentives for reducing emissions.

Good ideas are not, however, necessarily easy to implement. This book takes stock of the challenges faced when trying to implement REDD+ on the ground. REDD+ proponents are facing serious challenges; they are caught between complex local realities, powerful (sub)national stakeholders and a changing global REDD+ landscape.

The speed of implementation has therefore been much slower than expected when REDD+ was put at the top of the international climate agenda in 2007. Many underestimated the technical and practical (and embedded political) challenges: measuring (changes in) forest carbon stocks, setting realistic benchmarks (reference levels) to estimate actual reductions and ensure additionality, creating institutions and mechanisms to channel information and money in a result-based payment system, coordinating information and actions across scales and actors, etc.

Political economy issues remain a strong – and perhaps the most critical – barrier to implementation. Deforestation happens because some people or companies benefit from it: from the poor African smallholder to the rich Brazilian cattle owner and the Indonesian palm oil company. The concept of REDD+ was to make it beneficial for these to conserve forest, but we have, by and large, not succeeded. The international funding mobilized for REDD+ – approaching USD 9 billion and far from a trivial amount – is not sufficient to compensate and make everyone winners. And perhaps we should not do that either: can we justify spending development aid (most of the international funding) on rich and powerful agents of deforestation? The question is particularly pertinent, as the process of allocating concessions and land rights in the first place is often flawed.

These reasons for the slowness of REDD+ have been persistent. Past CIFOR volumes on REDD+ have argued that transformational change beyond the forestry sector is necessary to create enabling conditions for REDD+ implementation. But this is a formidable task, and we cannot wait for this to be fully achieved to make progress toward the realization of REDD+ goals. Keeping a focus on both tracks – the technically-quite-easy-to-implement policy measures and the long-term transformational change – remains a tall challenge, but a necessary one.

Although REDD+ initially had a strong national-level focus, much of the action has been at the subnational level, with more than 300 initiatives launched. “Subnational initiatives are the laboratory in which the REDD+ experiment is being conducted” (Sunderlin et al. this volume). Drawing on research in Brazil, Peru, Cameroon, Tanzania, Indonesia and Vietnam, the book takes stock of the experiences and lessons learned from 23 of these initiatives.

If conserving tropical forests were easy, it would already have been done, and there would be no need for this book. One challenge stands out above all the rest, as the book notes: “This is still a world where interests favoring the conversion of forests to non-forest uses in tropical countries often have the upper hand in land-use decisions” (Sunderlin et al. this volume). REDD+ intended to change this basic equation by making forest conservation more profitable than unsustainable forest exploitation, and we still struggle to implement that. “REDD+ faces a steep uphill climb in reaching its objectives.”

As a concerned scientist, I believe that good research – as defined by standard scientific criteria – can contribute to a better world. The REDD+ debate and even research are, however, like most policy debates/research, influenced by ideologies and particular interests, e.g. for/against carbon trade (read: market liberalism); those involved either demonstrate the success of specific positions or deny responsibility. Whereas we need “evidence-based policies,” I often see “policy-based evidence.”

This collection of case reports and the synthesis contribute greatly to our understanding about the realities on the ground, and offer “global insights from local context.” Our thinking on how to achieve REDD+ needs to be revised continuously based on lessons from the ground, as well as from shifting economic and political constraints and opportunities.

Read and revise!

Arild Angelsen

Professor, Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Visiting Professor, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona