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Doctoral defence of María Eugenia Recio, MPhil, 1.3.2022: Legal Transformation in an Era of Globalization: The Case of REDD+

The doctoral dissertation in the International Law will be examined at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Business Studies.

What is the topic of your doctoral research, and why is it important to study the topic, María Eugenia Recio?

My dissertation focuses on an initiative to protect forests, REDD+. In short, REDD+ stands for ‘reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation’ with the objective of protecting standing forests in the developing world to reduce climate change.

The timeliness and importance of the topic of my dissertation cannot be overemphasized. As the world heads towards a rise in temperature well beyond 1.5 degrees in the next decades, climate change is a tangible threat to our wellbeing. The protection of forests is essential for combating climate change because forests absorb and store carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. The link between forests and climate change is so essential that the climate debate would be obsolete in case of a global deforestation of the planet. But the protection of forests is critical and urgent for multiple reasons. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has been termed as a ‘global health crisis without precedent in living memory’, has shown that the breakdown in the relationship between human systems and ecosystems carries significant consequences.

Forests are key in ensuring the integrity of the world’s ecosystems. Now, we are feeling the consequences of their disappearance and degradation. If we continue with current trends in deforestation for the next few years, scientists augur a progressive but catastrophic collapse of humanity. Despite the importance of halting deforestation, in more than thirty years, the adoption of a treaty to protect forests has remained elusive.

In contrast, the emergence of REDD+ under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has created high expectations, and many believed that we were getting closer to the objective of protecting the remaining forests of the world. Fast and dynamic international cooperation is key to address global challenges, particularly deforestation. Understanding how international legal responses to protect forests have emerged, and their effects is essential to enhance our responses to current deforestation and other global problems.

However, lawyers find challenges in studying some current international legal responses, including to the problem of deforestation such as the REDD+initiative. Much of the international rulemaking activities on REDD+ do not fit within the traditional picture of international lawmaking that lawyers learn at law school. In this traditional picture, states are the main rule-makers. However REDD+ rules implemented on the ground have not commonly been adopted by states and do not follow the traditional forms and procedures of international law. Yet, they deploy significant effects similar to international law.

What are the key findings or observations of your doctoral research?

This dissertation provides one of the most comprehensive and integrated overviews of international rulemaking activities on REDD+, although limited in scope to specific rulemaking sites. In particular, it provides a comprehensive understanding of rulemaking activities on REDD+ by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its new fund, the Green Climate Fund; three multilateral financing initiatives on REDD+ hosted by the World Bank and UN agencies; and bilateral partnerships on REDD+ by Norway.

This work shows how REDD+ rules are built and the power dynamics playing at the heart of such rulemaking activities. It also contributes to better understanding the challenges of international legal responses to protect forests.

Using REDD+ as a contemporary case study of non-traditional international lawmaking, this work joins existing international legal debates on transformations in international lawmaking caused by globalization. It finds that REDD+ illustrates current trends in international lawmaking as well as two key characteristics: reliance on informality and complexity. This work identifies clear opportunities that emerged from the reliance on informality and associated complexity. They have facilitated incremental and fast agreement on forest protection rules and enabled massive experimentation on a global scale. They have also enabled the adoption of international rules to protect forests with higher international standards.

However, informality and complexity also brought challenges. Complexity has favoured hegemonic powers in moving their agendas forward with respect of REDD+. This occurred in institutional settings where they have more leeway. In some of these settings, concerns over shortcomings in transparency in rulemaking remain. Informality and complexity have also facilitated the proliferation of technical rules. They contribute to disguise the ambitious legal reform project at the heart of REDD+ as a depoliticized technical endeavour. REDD+ has shifted from inciting ‘transformational change’ in forest governance towards a technical process to produce information and comply with requirements. Implying costly preparations by forested developing countries, REDD+ drives financial resources and energy in a misleading direction, reinforcing the idea that the problem of deforestation is simple and purely a matter of requiring developing countries to comply with multiple and overlapping technical requirements.

More importantly, due to its complexity and specialized nature, REDD+ confers the idea that substantial changes are being brought in all over the world to address deforestation. Yet, its actual benefits and long-term sustainability remain unproven.

How can the results of your doctoral research be utilised in practice?

My research is a call for international legal scholars to look beyond the traditional picture of international law to understand the true nature of current international rulemaking. It argues that in addressing global challenges we need to know all the regulatory activities that do not fit in the label of international law but that prove to substantially influence implementation on the ground. We also need to understand where those regulatory activities come from and how they are made. My research shows that these influential norms can entail transparency and democracy shortcomings. Hence, international legal responses to global problems may act as a smokescreen and prevent us from addressing global challenges in a more comprehensive and sustainable manner.

In addition, the legal transformations explored in REDD+ rulemaking put into question the extent to which the effects of globalization and the legal means used by the international community are leading us anywhere closer to addressing the great challenges ahead. In practice, this work informs current international efforts and legal responses with respect to other global challenges, such as climate change, health international crisis and biodiversity protection. It provides useful information to negotiators, national implementers and countries in how their rulemaking activities influence international developments.

What are the key research methods and materials used in your doctoral research?

This research is composed of five articles published in peer-reviewed and internationally recognized journals. Each of the articles explores the rulemaking activities by selected rulemaking sites in depth. The synthesis brings together the findings from the articles and links the studied rulemaking activities with international legal debates. This research relied on legal doctrinal analysis of relevant legal norms and policies and on secondary literature. The lens of informal lawmaking has provided an ample and empirical framework to analyze all the REDD+ rulemaking activities that remained excluded from the traditional picture of international lawmaking. It also allowed me to shift the focus from what ‘law’ is as an output or a static body of rules towards the entire process of norm creation.

Qualitative research methods, such as participant observation and interviews, were used to complement the analysis, providing a broad understanding of rulemaking activities at the international level while linking them with illustrative experiences from the ground. This has provided a robust legal basis that can be certainly further enriched in the future with empirical and interdisciplinary research.

 

The doctoral dissertation of María Eugenia Recio, MPhil, entitled Legal Transformation in an Era of Globalization: The Case of REDD+, will be examined at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Business Studies on 1 March 2022 at 1 PM Finnish time. The Opponent will be Professor Joyeeta Gupta, University of Amsterdam, and the Custos will be Professor Kati Kulovesi, University of Eastern Finland. Language of the public defence is English. Public examination will be streamed live.

For further information, please contact:

María Eugenia Recio, eugenia.recio@uef.fi