Underwriting a global reforestation program

by Michael Richardson

SINGAPORE — Where does Southeast Asia rank in greenhouse-gas emissions, a key focal point of the international climate change negotiations?

The short answer is that the region is an important source of worldwide emissions, mainly from deforestation. And it is expected to become a bigger source in the future.

Member states of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, are also highly vulnerable to the predicted effects of climate change, including rising sea levels and extreme weather. They cannot afford to be passive bystanders in the climate change negotiations expected to continue well into next year before any deal is finalized.

Last April, the Asian Development Bank published a report that said Southeast Asia in 2000 contributed 12 percent of the carbon dioxide, methane and other global-warming gases produced by human activity. This was almost certainly an underestimate, since the ADB survey covered only five of the 10 ASEAN countries (Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam).

The ADB found that cutting or burning of forests and conversion of the land to plantations, farms and other uses was by far the biggest source of Southeast Asia’s emissions, contributing 75 percent of the region’s total.

The energy sector contributed 15 percent by burning coal, oil and natural gas, while agriculture was the source of 8 percent, mainly methane from growing rice in water-saturated fields.

The ADB based its calculation on statistics that were nine years old. However, the report noted that total greenhouse-gas emissions from Southeast Asia (population over 560 million) were rising at a faster rate than the global average because the region’s economic growth was higher.

Checking emissions is a far-from-exact science, particularly when information from many developing countries is scant. The profile also changes.

While Singapore and Malaysia have significantly reduced emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, by switching to gas in generating electricity, other ASEAN countries have intensified their use of cheaper but more carbon- intensive coal in power generation. So their emissions will be higher.

Energy conservation and efficiency measures would reduce the rate of emissions growth if applied by businesses and individual consumers across Southeast Asia.

However, for Southeast Asia, the greatest potential for cutting emissions is in forestry. The panel of scientists and officials advising the United Nations estimates that, in 2004, deforestation was responsible for just over 17 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions.

A study published last month by scientists affiliated with the Global Carbon Project concluded that this figure fell to 12 percent last year, down from 20 percent in the 1990s, probably because wet conditions limited use of fire to burn forests and clear land in Southeast Asia, where Indonesia has been the main source of emissions.

Researchers have said that in some drought years, when forest fires raged out of control and peat swamps cleared of trees dried out and lighted up, Indonesia was the world’s third-largest greenhouse-gas emitter after China and the United States.

One way to prevent the emissions level from rising again would be for climate negotiators to agree on a proposed plan to pay Indonesia and other tropical forest nations in Southeast Asia, South America and Africa not just to halt logging in remaining jungle zones, but also to re-plant degraded forests and plant new ones.

Since forests soak up huge amounts of global warming carbon dioxide, this would help the world absorb some of the excess gas being spewed into the atmosphere each year, mainly from burning fossil fuels.

The scheme being discussed, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), still faces serious problems. But while the more than 190 nations in the climate change negotiations have argued bitterly over emissions targets and funding to help poorer countries adapt to global warming, forest preservation and restoration is among the issues that appear to have achieved the most progress.

“That is because we are looking at a huge global emissions source,” said Paul Winn, forest and climate campaigner for Greenpeace Australia. “There is also the recognition that it is a relatively cheap, easy form of emissions reductions.”

Some rich countries, such as the U.S. and Australia, want REDD to be structured so that their energy-intensive companies can offset emissions at home by paying for forest conservation and expansion in developing countries.

While corruption, illegal logging and mismanagement in the forest sectors of major recipient countries are big obstacles to effective implementation of any agreed REDD scheme, the potential for expanding forests is huge.

Just last month, the Global Partnership on Forest Restoration announced that new satellite surveys had shown that more than a billion hectares of former forest land and degraded forest could be restored to good-quality, healthy forests. That’s equivalent to around 6 percent of the planet’s total land area and some of the most promising forest restoration opportunities identified by the satellite mapping are in Southeast Asia.

Forests once covered over half the world’s land area. Today, that figure is below 30 percent and each year a further 7 million hectares of forest are lost.

Halting and then reversing this loss will not be easy. But if developed countries are prepared to underwrite a global reforestation program, it could help both the climate and the rural poor.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.