We try to save the forest, but does it really work?

Are we failing to save the forest? © Photo by Fabrice Villard on Unsplash

Deforestation and forest degradation contribute to a large volume of carbon dioxide (CO2) emission in the atmosphere, therefore forests have an important role to play in reducing CO2 emission and mitigate climate change. A better management to prevent forest destruction may provide 37% of the climate change solutions to keep global warming below the 2 °C threshold by 2030.

In 2007, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) proposed a plan to reduce CO2 emissions caused by deforestation. This plan was called REDD+, a short acronym for reducing emission from deforestation, forest degradation and enhancing carbon stocks. The main goal of this plan is to give funding to developing countries and help them to conserve their forests. Most projects are focused on combining rural development and forest conservation in poor communities.

In an article published in June 2018 in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, a scientific journal summarizing the views of experts on trends in environmental sustainability, Duchelle and colleagues reviewed the effects of the REDD+ implementation. They reviewed the scientific literature by cautiously selecting relevant studies showing a clear aim, repeatable methods and reliable result measurements. On Web of Science, the equivalent of Google for scientists, they searched articles for the period of 2015–2017 which contained key word strings such as “forest AND carbon AND payment”, “REDD OR REDD+ OR compensated reduction” etc. 1078 articles popped out of this key word research. Then the authors screened and read these articles to finally keep only 45 papers based on relevance criteria.

Most of the projects on the field were focused on training communities living next to forest, regulating deforestation, and creating local governance institutions. The 45 studies selected evaluated these projects according to three group of effects: participation, carbon and land use effects and non-carbon effects.


Studies on participation assessment highlighted that people often do not participate in REDD+ project because of a lack of information, a low trust and low education and income. On the contrary, a high participation is linked with a desire to engage in a collaborative work, a high education and a large family size. The authors noted that community work is often limited to data gathering and lack equity in the organization phase. To increase participation, the authors recommend to cultivate trust, give opportunities of meaningful engagement to communities, and work with organization which are appreciated by local communities.

Carbon and land use effects

Carbon and land use effects are related to the way people are using the land either for agriculture and forestry, and the carbon stocks and emissions caused by these land uses. Many studies show that REDD+ decreased forest degradation and increased carbon stocks. One study using a randomized control trial, which is the most reliable experimental scientific method, showed a decrease in deforestation in villages which received a payment for conserving the forest. Even though these results are encouraging, the authors highlighted the lack of studies looking at drivers of forest degradation. Contrary to deforestation, forest degradation is not a clear cut of the forest but rather a partial removal of forest elements which threaten its integrity and quality. To increase the amount of carbon kept in forests, the authors recommend to not limit REDD+ project to small farmers who are not the only responsible for deforestation, as well as to increase REDD+ funding to improve project impacts on the ground.

Non-carbon effects

26 studies focused on the non-carbon effects such as well-being, land property rights and biodiversity. REDD+ appears to have a minimal impact on wellbeing and income. However, access restriction to the forest has a negative effect on property rights and livelihood. Land property rights are often challenging for REDD+ projects since they often lack documentation and are inherited from past inequitable wealth distribution. Authors highlighted that agricultural practices proposed by REDD+ projects sometimes were not financially sustainable for local communities. REDD+ effects on biodiversity were not directly measured but used indirect metrics such as tree cover. To improve the non-carbon effects of REDD+ the authors recommend to promote equity, recognize community rights, and improve biodiversity monitoring.

A diverse tropical forest as we love them © Thuan Sarzynski

Take home messages

The diversity of studies and actions posed a challenge to rigorously measure the effect of REDD+. REDD+ seems to have a positive effect on forest cover as well as carbon stocks. However, studies focused on carbon effect were fewer than those focusing on wellbeing. REDD+ effect on welfare is mixed but is likely to be positive if incentives are included. In general, this review highlighted the importance of local community participation in REDD+ projects to achieve both carbon and non-carbon benefits.

To conclude there is a lack of studies which reliably measure REDD+ impacts. Moreover, research is often disconnected from REDD+ implemented project on the ground. More research and impact studies are needed to really understand the effectiveness of REDD+ in increasing carbon stock and improving rural community livelihood.


Duchelle, A. E., G. Simonet, W. D. Sunderlin, and S. Wunder. 2018. What is REDD+ achieving on the ground? Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 32:134–140.