‘I know it when I see it’, declared Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 when he struggled to construct a concise, legal definition in a court case. Movie buffs might also recall James Bond using the phrase when he was asked what he knew about gold in the 1964 film Goldfinger.  To many working in or around REDD+, questions on the exact nature and role of the private sector might elicit a similar response.

The UN-REDD Programme released a Policy Brief today that offers some answers to several questions on the prickly topic of the private sector, the ‘who, what, why and how’? Interviews held while writing the brief revealed a wide range of views and emotions on the subject.  At the narrow end of the spectrum, there are those who apply the term only to those involved in the world of carbon credits, or verified emissions reductions. At the broader end of the spectrum, there are those who view the term as encompassing all those involved in the drivers of deforestation and degradation. This tends to bring agriculture into the REDD+ dialogue, and the nexus between the two is an increasingly popular topic of discussion in REDD+ circles which is increasingly reflected in the international conference arena.

The Role of the Private Sector in REDD+: the Case for Engagement and Options for Intervention argues that the private sector, using the broader of the definitions above, will have to play a key role in trying to slow, halt and reverse deforestation and forest degradation. As the largest terrestrial land users in the world, they will be heavily involved in activities on the ground that are integral to REDD+. They will play fundamental roles as designers, developers, operators and enablers of ‘forest-friendly’ initiatives at a variety of scales.

The private sector is often cast as the villain in the REDD+ world, and there is certainly evidence from around the world to support this argument. However, it would be a mistake to think that REDD+ can function as an effective tool without the private sector in the future. They bring many positive attributes that will be critical to REDD+ including innovation, investment and the implementation of activities. As with a three legged stool, remove any one of these attributes and it is challenging to see how REDD+ can succeed at scale.

The UN-REDD Programme offers a neutral platform for forest countries to engage with the private sector and from which to support existing in-country initiatives. The sheer complexity of the issues being addressed mean that there is no policy ‘silver bullet’ and a range of tools to change behaviour are discussed. These tend to be most effective when used in combination and can include incentives, risk mitigation instruments, the setting of minimum standards and enabling conditions.

This brief is the start of a larger body of work on the private sector by the UN-REDD Programme. We would welcome any comments, thoughts or ideas in the comments section below.

Bio: Iain Henderson joined the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) in Geneva in 2012 to work on REDD+ and Sustainable Land Use. Prior to this, he spent two years in Hong Kong, where he grew up, with WWF’s Forest & Climate Initiative working on finance-related issues. For the first 12 years of his working life, Iain worked in investment banks in London in the Fixed Income, Currencies and Commodities divisions of UBS and Deutsche Bank.