Amidst rapid social, political and environmental change, questions over the use, value, and control of forests are vital to the protection and conservation of these ecosystems. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), was established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) nearly a decade ago and is a highly visible intervention in global forest conservation. REDD+ is primarily a Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) system, which economically rewards resource managers for the secure provision of ecosystem services [1
]. In the case of REDD+, the PES system remunerates forest managers in the Global South for reducing deforestation and degradation, thus reducing carbon emissions. Carbon offset credits are ‘sold’ to (often Global North) buyers [2
]. Under the UNFCCC, REDD+ refers to the full range of policy approaches and positive incentives undertaken by nations to support activities that reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks through conservation and sustainable management of forests. The potential for conservation co-benefits from these forestry activities have provided an important potential new source of international finance for biodiversity conservation efforts [3
]. As evidence continues to support the critical importance of forests to local livelihoods [4
] efforts have been made to ensure that livelihood benefits are realized as part of REDD+, to avoid adverse unintended consequences on forest-dependent and forest-adjacent populations in developing countries. The use of market principles to protect tropical forests in order to mitigate climate change has also raised important concerns about justice for local, indigenous communities [5
]. In response, the international development community has developed frameworks to reduce the risk of negative social and environmental outcomes from REDD+ projects. The ’Cancun Safeguards’, agreed by UNFCCC parties at the sixteenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP16) in 2010, require that ‘free, prior, and informed consent’ is obtained to protect the rights of indigenous people living in project zones, as well as mandating regular reporting on the progress of safeguards [7
]. These mandatory safeguards still provide flexibility in REDD+ design, allowing project proponents to respond to local contexts and circumstances. REDD+ has gained widespread acceptance as a mechanism for developing countries to reduce forest degradation and associated CO2
], whilst offering unprecedented opportunities to provide community and biodiversity ‘co-benefits’ in project zones—a ‘triple-win’ scenario.
A number of reporting frameworks have emerged to guide best practice in the REDD+ context. Complementary to the Cancun Safeguards, these include the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCB) standards, which provide third party certification of REDD+ activities, allowing for greater confidence in the veracity of claims made by project proponents, especially for investors and buyers in the emerging market for REDD+ carbon credits [10
]. It is hoped that such accreditations will enhance the monetary and moral value of projects in the global marketplace through the certified assurance of socially- and environmentally-just carbon—the sought after ‘triple-win’ for climate, community, and biodiversity [11
]. These standards can help governments and project developers implement activities which contribute (net) positive co-benefits for local biodiversity and communities, whilst mitigating the potential negative outcomes of REDD+ on these entities [12
]. The CCB standards were established in 2005, featured prominently in the COP16 agreements, and are now amongst the most widely used of certification standards, with more than 130 projects worldwide having sought accreditation. To date, CCB has issued 39,201,081 verified carbon units (1 verified carbon unit (VCU) = 1 tonne of carbon) to a range of forestry programs worldwide [13
]. CCB certification is applied for voluntarily by project proponents and it represents a desirable seal of approval for many communities, corporate investors, and governments.
The CCB Standards require projects to be evaluated by independent auditors at the validation (design) stage and verified periodically over the project lifetime. The reporting requirements of the Standards are designed to promote a high level of transparency and accountability, but do not specifically state how certain criteria should be addressed, fulfilled, monitored, measured, and reported. Proponents must identify the best way to communicate this information to auditors in project validation and verification reports—some guidance and template documents are made available by CCB to project proponents, but they are not always used. At present, most standards suffer from a lack of specificity, and do not provide a comprehensive framework for assessing the quality of governance and overall effectiveness of REDD+ projects [14
]; the CCB standards have these same challenges. Inevitably, any attempt to synthesize REDD+ outcomes based on documentation from these audit processes will reflect the limitations of the verification and monitoring processes themselves, and the extent to which these processes recognize the complex political economy context within which REDD+ projects are implemented [14
]. Recent work on the quality of REDD+ governance at the intergovernmental level, with implementation agency- and country-levels has resulted in proposals for governance standards that could provide greater assurance about the overall legitimacy and accountability of the mechanism [14
]. As the current CCB standards do not explicitly address quality of governance, our analysis does not assess these specific concerns about how these governance issues might impact REDD+ effectiveness. Our analysis is limited to project-level plans and outcomes, as reported in design and verification documents under the CCB standards. Although project level outcomes are clearly impacted by macro scale political economy issues, project proponents and implementers have less direct influence on how REDD+ is governed at country and intergovernmental levels. Our current exercise is analytically specific to the project level outcomes based on these existing standards, and it remains valid, despite concerns about the overall governance and legitimacy of REDD+ implementation at a more macro scale.
Alongside the expansion of REDD+ activities in recent years, a new global development agenda has been established under the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September 2015, this set of 17 Goals and 169 related targets unite a wide array of social and environmental issues, including education, health, and biodiversity, with an aspiration to achieve these globally by 2030 [16
]. The Goals are increasingly being used to guide government policy worldwide, and they are also increasingly being adopted by businesses and other organizations that are keen to engage with the current global development agenda. The high level of acceptance, and the authority across diverse sectors, that the SDGs have attained make them a useful evaluative framework for the present analysis, commanding greater recognition and validity than other alternatives. We recognize that the SDGs framework, while being widely accepted, has also been subjected to considerable critique since its inception, with commentators suggesting that this remains a vague and fragmented concept, with little practical value [17
]. Others raise concerns of governance: Like the CCB Standards, the SDGs are not legally binding, and governments must voluntarily support the Goals, and they are responsible for mobilizing policy and practice in accordance with the Goals, and for monitoring progress. Where accountability systems are weak, transparency is lacking and private interests are strong, there is risk of the Goals being implemented in ways which conflict with local needs [19
]. Despite these critiques, the SDGs do provide an increasingly accepted set of targets for assessing progress, and provide a useful framework for the evaluation of a diverse set of REDD+ projects.
Both REDD+ and the SDGs represent aspirational ambitions for the global community, but much of their potential depends on the ways in which these goals are translated into meaningful (and verifiable) local actions. The SDGs encapsulate contemporary social and environmental concerns, and they increasingly guide the development policies of Governments and corporates worldwide [9
]. They have a broad reach, are well-publicized, and are increasingly better understood. The FAO’s recent report, The State of the World’s Forests [9
], recognizes the contributions of forests to all of the SDGs, and it supports the need for responsible, coherent policy-making mobilized around forest management and the SDGs [20
]. REDD+ has been recognized as an instrument to help achieve the 2030 Agenda [21
], and some projects have started to acknowledge the SDGs in their activities [22
]. This analysis draws on these two global-scale developments—REDD+ and the SDGs—assessing the ways in which REDD+ aspires to produce community and biodiversity co-benefits with relation to the SDGs, and importantly the extent to which current projects are delivering on these aspirations. Exploring the extent to which REDD+ projects align with SDG goals and targets in their intentions and outcomes enables us to identify the potential of REDD+, in order to practically and responsibly contribute to broader development agendas.
This paper provides an empirically-informed exploration of the synergies between the SDGs and REDD+ projects, and suggests a method for project proponents to operationalize and document REDD+ outcomes which resonate with global development agendas. Whilst flexibility in REDD+ may allow location-specific and locally relevant project design, the subsequent diversity of content—including project objectives, activities, reporting metrics and outcomes—renders the task of comparison between and assessment of REDD+ projects difficult [23
]. This paper proposes an innovative approach to address this gap, using the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an evaluative framework. It compares and assesses the success of verified REDD+ projects using the documents that were made available by the CCB, by developing an analytical framework that can handle the diversity of report content. Specifically, we ask (1) in what ways the CCB Standards encourage REDD+ project proponents to orient their activities in accord with the SDG targets; (2) how strongly REDD+ project aims and objectives align with SDGs at the target-level; (3) how successfully REDD+ project activities address their SDG-related objectives, based on the evidence provided upon project verification, and; (4) how REDD+ project proponents might better accommodate and crucially meet global development objectives in their project design and reporting. This exploration comes as a timely contribution, a decade on from REDD+ establishment and amidst ongoing concerns for environmental and social justice surrounding REDD+ [6
Our analysis shows that REDD+ projects are evidencing strong alignment with the SDG targets in their proposed activities—and go beyond the requirements of the CCB Standards in doing so. We find a notable gap, however, between the SDG-related aims of projects and their reported (and measured) progress in these fields. We conclude that whilst REDD+ aspirations are demonstrably high, this gap suggests that safeguarding bodies could do more to encourage successful operationalization of REDD+, to deliver and report on the diversity of co-benefits that are potentially achievable. By broadening required performance criteria, CCB and other safeguard frameworks could help REDD+ meet its full potential in relation to broader global development agendas.
Three years since the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was established, and with REDD+ now a decade old, this exploration comes as a timely investigation into the progress of subnational REDD+ projects on-the-ground and the potential of REDD+ to support the global development agenda. Orienting REDD+ project activities to the SDGs has obvious benefits, with the potential to improve projects’ overarching success in reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation through the provision of sustainable co-benefits. To tackle the diversity of REDD+ report content, this study has utilized the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 Targets as an evaluative framework. Independently verified REDD+ projects in different stages of their implementation pathway have been reviewed, revealing the potential synergies between REDD+ and a key component of the contemporary global development agenda.
4.1. Matching CCB and SDG Objectives
As a leading safeguard framework, the CCB Standards (in association with REDD+) seek to avoid both the potential negative impacts of project activities on biodiversity and communities and generate net positive benefits for these entities (Panfil and Harvey, 2014). Since the CCB Standards were created before the SDGs were agreed in 2015, care is needed in explicitly linking the two. However, links are important where they can be found: the CCB Standards make demands of REDD+ project proponents that seek validation, which the SDGs do not—the SDGs being recommendations as opposed to mandatory compliance targets for signatories. Standards could therefore be valuable in suggesting forest management approaches that might better enable countries to deliver challenging SDG outcomes (focused, of course, on the forest sector and allied project activities). Our analysis shows that currently the CCB standards, which are designed to mitigate projects’ negative effects, only address a small subset of SDG targets. These targets primarily link to biodiversity and ‘best practice’ procedures.
4.2. Evaluation of Objectives
The reviewed REDD+ projects are aspiring to work on a much broader set of SDG targets than what the CCB Standards require (Figure 2
). The projects demonstrate a strong alignment with the SDGs in their stated objectives, with all but three SDGs (Goals 3, 7, and 14) addressed by activities proposed by over half of projects (Figure 3
). These proposals, described in the project design documents, go beyond the minimum requirements of the CCB Standards—of which there are currently relatively few—and they demonstrate considerable ambition amongst REDD+ project proponents in relation to the wider benefits of the activities that they are intending to undertake in and around their field locations. Importantly, while being demanding, the CCB standards give the project proponents considerable flexibility in the details of project planning, allowing activities to be designed in ways that are locally appropriate. This analysis has shown that project proponents are inclined to contribute multiple and far-reaching co-benefits from their activities, and this indicates the potential use of REDD+ as a vehicle for positive local scale mobilization towards the SDGs.
4.3. Evaluation of Outcomes
Although reviewed REDD+ projects have such high aspirations in relation to the SDGs, very few are actively monitoring progress and impact against the goals. There is a gap between aspiration and reported progress for each project (Figure 4
and Figure A1
), and at the goal level (Figure 5
). On average, just over a third of projects’ initial objectives are being evidenced as having improved by the projects upon verification. Earlier examinations of REDD+ [33
] reported that, relative to the monitoring of carbon stock and forest cover, measurement of co-benefits for REDD+ is still in its infancy. These findings suggest that whilst this is still the case for many REDD+ projects (at least from those reviewed here), some projects are demonstrating competent monitoring across far-reaching activities, but are currently failing to demonstrate where improvements have been made (Table 2
). This gap is important. Whilst some changes take time to be realized, 80% of our projects had been in operation for over three years at their most recent verification. It might be hoped that, in this time, improvement could be demonstrated in some of the monitoring variables identified. Thus, we deem the aspiration–performance gap to be indicative of missed opportunities in REDD+ projects, that need to be appropriately addressed by project proponents, as well as those responsible for setting standards and monitoring performance against these standards.
Financial constraints likely play a role in creating this gap: project proponents often face a trade-off between investing funds in actually delivering social and environmental improvements, as opposed to investing resources into monitoring. This resonates with our observation (Section 2.4
) that SDG-relevant activities are likely to be under-reported by project proponents. While this is probably true, most project proponents are also likely to be aware that, without explicit monitoring of progress against baselines or without project scenarios, they cannot credibly claim that they have been delivering real improvements. Some level of investment in measuring performance, thus, is likely to be important for projects to demonstrate their wider achievements across a range of social and environmental indicators.
Another important constraint of the present analysis is the short time period that has elapsed since the start of most of the projects currently under review, we acknowledge that some SDG-related parameters (especially those relating to institutional and social change) will only show real improvements in generational timescales, as opposed to the annual/biennial timescales that are visible in current verifications and monitoring reports. But, even where it is more appropriate to expect change to be visible over longer periods, monitoring metrics are important to allow baselines to be established, so that real improvement can eventually be evidenced. Reflecting this, the scoring system utilized here rewards projects that have identified monitoring variables, compared to those that have not.
The analysis also shows which goals are most frequently targeted, and which are the least frequently. Global Goals 4 (Education) and 12 (Sustainable production and Consumption) are highly targeted and demonstrate the highest improvement amongst all projects. Goals 3, 7, and 14 are targeted by fewer projects, but the most notable gap between aspiration and improvement is visible in Global Goals 7 (Clean Energy), 10 (Equality), and 13 (Climate Change). This analysis has not sought the ‘best’ REDD+ project, nor is there a presumption that addressing a wider range of SDG targets is necessarily an indication of a ‘better’ project. The projects reviewed have been in operation for different periods of time, so it is unsurprising that they differ in their progress. However, it is important to identify where and how projects have been able to provide strong evidence of improvement, to suggest how projects might better support the global development agenda, and to provide independently verified evidence of their progress towards the global goals.
The CCB has recently introduced a monitoring template [34
] that is designed for project proponents, to help them highlight important project benefits according to standardized benefit metrics. We find that the two strongest scoring projects (projects 11 and 12) are verified using the CCB’s recently introduced CCB/VCS Monitoring Report template, which offers some standardized monitoring metrics to proponents, some of which are strong correlates to the SDGs—including improved access to, and quality of, healthcare (Global Goal 3), education (Global Goal 4), and clean water (Goal 6). These projects are not the only ones to use the new template, nor does it require that all the suggested variables be monitored—hence, it should not be seen as a prerequisite for success. It does, however, provide a reporting framework that is consistent and comparable across a wide range of local interventions. All CCB projects will be expected to monitor the same quantifiable information when they undergo their next rounds of verification. We might expect that an eventual programme-wide rollout of the template across all VCS/CCB projects will encourage more proponents to engage in astute monitoring and targeted activities, generating positive SDG outcomes. It might also facilitate future comparison between the relative achievements of different projects.
4.4. Policy Implications
This analysis places strong emphasis on the need for clearly articulated and measurable targets as a key element of successful project implementation, which corresponds with other investigations of conservation outcomes [25
]. The introduction of the monitoring template for REDD+ proponents marks a step in the right direction to ensuring that projects generate lasting co-benefits, and by directing needed attention towards critical fields. Currently, however, relatively few SDG targets are mandatory in the existing CCB criteria. Since CCB does not require that specific variables are monitored, closing the gap between aspiration and improvement relies upon motivated, responsible proponents who go beyond the minimum reporting requirements for certification. Despite this, our findings suggest that REDD+ projects already target a diversity of SDGs beyond what is required by the CCB Standards. Whilst some projects are making demonstrable improvements in the SDG fields, many projects’ objectives remain abstract aspirations, or else isolated accounts of project activities that are unable to systematically indicate progress towards these targets. It seems that while REDD+ could be a vehicle to elicit strong positive change in vulnerable communities, these opportunities are currently being missed—projects with high aspirations are not delivering real co-benefits (or at least not monitoring and reporting these under the CCB Standards). This is not a criticism of the programme itself, but the process of reporting and monitoring, which is potentially missing an opportunity to provide proponents a structure for demonstrating their progress towards the Global Goals.
If the CCB and other safeguarding frameworks were to broaden and tighten REDD+ performance criteria in synergy with the SDGs, the opportunities that REDD+ offers to support global development—that are currently being missed—might be better fulfilled. This might involve introducing more obligatory standardized metrics into the new monitoring template, which align with the entire spectrum of SDG targets, and rewards for project proponents that engage with these metrics. CCB validation criteria could potentially require proponents to describe why certain Global Goals are not being supported—recognizing that in many cases this will be because it is inappropriate, or not relevant to the project zone communities. We are not arguing that it is the responsibility of REDD+ proponents to tackle all aspects of the contemporary global development agenda; clearly, individual project-level forest sector interventions cannot realistically address the entire range of issues that the SDGs identify as global priorities. However, such an approach to reporting and monitoring under the CCB, which encourages REDD+ alignment with the SDGs, could maintain a degree of programmatic flexibility, while also incentivizing proponents to actively engage with the global development agenda, as is appropriate to local needs and contexts.