Words Matter in the Woods : Discourses on Deforestation in Global Climate Politics

Abstract: Over the past decade, avoiding deforestation has become a central element of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The focal point of this has been the incentive-based mechanism of REDD+, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. A key notion in REDD+ is to establish incentives for developing countries to reduce their forest-related carbon emissions by creating and recognising a financial value for the carbon not emitted into the atmosphere. REDD+ has changed how tropical forests are managed, but has also been the source of much contestation. The effects of deforestation go beyond carbon emissions, leading some actors to argue that biodiversity or socioeconomic factors, and not carbon, should be the priority of managing deforestation. This thesis demonstrates that words, and the way we make sense of deforestation, matter. They matter because they prioritise certain underlying ideas, notions and understandings, while neglecting others. These, in turn, shape the way we approach deforestation. Using argumentative discourse analysis (Hajer 1995), I explore the role of deforestation in global climate politics along the following overarching research questions: 1) which are the dominant storylines and discourses on REDD+ and 2) how are storylines and discourses articulated and manifested in REDD+? My key conceptual and analytical tool in addressing these questions is discursive storylines. In short, these are condensed figures of speech through which actors make sense of complex issues without recourse to comprehensive and cumbersome explanations. They are organised around certain discourse(s) and manifested through certain practices. My empirical focus is on the UNFCCC negotiations on REDD+. The main sources of data were texts in the form of UNFCCC official documents, as well as a wealth of secondary material. In addition, I attended six UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COPs) and intercessional-meetings, and conducted 38 semi-structured interviews. The analysis has lead to four academic papers. Paper I maps the key storylines and discourses on REDD+; Paper II explores a ‘new’ emerging discourse which is entering the REDD+ debates; Paper III analyses the technical debates on monitoring forest carbon flows in REDD+ and connects them to key storylines; and Paper IV analyses the operationalisation of social safeguards in REDD+ and how REDD+ is legitimised. A key result identifies REDD+ as dominated by an ecological modernisation discourse and a more marginalised civic environmental discourse. As a consequence of this dominance, the role of deforestation in global climate politics is characterised by the following aspects: favouring of commodification of forest carbon over ecological and social aspects; a global rather than a local focus; an emphasis on market instruments at the expense of alternative options; a reliance on experts and technology rather than local based knowledge. My results further illustrate how the two dominant discourses permeate into different practices in REDD+, e.g. how forest carbon monitoring practices operationalisation of social safeguards both contribute to and are embedded in the overarching discursive debates on REDD+. Moreover, analysing the emergence of a third discourse, the integrated landscape approach discourse, this thesis argues that while the new discourse may have gained credibility and legitimacy, it has yet to impose its logics and rationales on REDD+ in a profound way.