SINGAPORE — Can the world’s remaining tropical forests in Indonesia and elsewhere be protected and brought into the battle against climate change? Working out ways of halting or slowing the cutting of forests for valuable timber and agriculture is now being discussed at U.N. climate change negotiations taking place in Poznan, Poland, through Friday.
Trees soak up and store carbon dioxide when they grow and release it when they rot or are burned. Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas blamed by many scientists for warming the planet. Deforestation contributes about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, and most of it occurs in forest-rich developing nations in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. So any international deal to preserve forests is of critical interest both to these regions and the wider world.
The talks in Poznan are part of a process that began in Bali, Indonesia, a year ago to try to reach agreement on a new climate change control treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. Under the Kyoto pact to limit emissions, all developed economies, except the United States, have agreed to cut greenhouse gases by an average of 5 percent from 1990 levels by 2012.
The Bush administration rejected Kyoto, arguing that it unfairly excused China, India, Indonesia and other emerging economies from binding commitments. U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has promised to bring America back to the negotiating table as a constructive partner in the U.N. negotiations.
Kyoto includes national cap and trade systems that allow countries and companies to achieve reductions in their greenhouse gases flexibly by buying and selling carbon credits. Under Kyoto, the U.N. permits tree-planting programs in its carbon trading scheme, but not forest preservation. This is expected to change in any post-Kyoto arrangement. Government representatives at the Poznan meeting will consider proposals for a pay-to-preserve forests scheme known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. Under REDD, richer countries would pay to maintain forests in tropical regions to offset their own emissions.
Many countries favor forestry offsets, both to direct billions of dollars of carbon finance to developing nations that protect their forests and to make it cheaper for advanced economies to meet their greenhouse gas emission limits. However, there are many challenges. How accurately can forest carbon emissions savings be measured and what sort of forest should be included? Only primary jungle, or regrown forests and plantations as well — even if they hold less carbon?
Will REDD forest remain standing for the long-term and can illegal logging and fire be prevented? Will a halt in logging in one area cause deforestation in another? Some nongovernment organizations (NGOs) fear that attaching a substantial preservation value to forests could lead to land disputes, loss of livelihoods and intervention by corrupt officials and profit-seeking outsiders. Other NGOs say that cheap REDD credits could allow rich nations to avoid making deep emission cuts at home and thus do little to help stop damaging climate change.
Indonesia has become the center of REDD trial programs in Asia because it still has large areas of forest, despite rapid deforestation. The country has 91 million hectares of tree cover, although it is estimated to have lost 70 percent of its original forest.
As a result, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy is among the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, according to a report commissioned by the World Bank and Britain’s international aid agency.
Last month, California and two other U.S. states signed an agreement with Indonesia’s Aceh province in northern Sumatra. Its aim is to integrate forest carbon credits from Aceh into U.S. emissions trading schemes.
The pact, the first of its kind, is a significant step toward global acceptance of carbon credits from forest protection. It is linked to preservation of a 750,000-hectare forest reserve in Aceh called Ulu Masen, which will save 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted each year (if the trees were cut), or 100 million tons over the project’s lifetime. Australian firm Carbon Conservation teamed up with the Aceh government last year to sell the offsets, known as verified emissions reductions. These usually trade between $4 and $10 for a ton of carbon saved.
International NGO Fauna and Flora International, which supports the Ulu Masen project, is also working with Australia’s Macquarie financial services group to develop three REDD projects in West Kalimantan and Papua in Indonesia. Investment firm New Forests, headquartered in Sydney, has signed a deal with the government of Papua province, the source of much of the country’s remaining pristine forest. It will protect 200,000 hectares, saving up to 40 million tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted over the lifetime of the project.
Meanwhile, the Australian government has pledged A$30 million as part of a project to protect 50,000 hectares of Kalimantan forest and rehabilitate at least 50,000 hectares of drained peat swamp, which could become a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions if it dried out and caught fire. These are promising projects not just for forest preservation in Indonesia but also for poverty alleviation and local empowerment — provided they are well-run and corruption kept is kept at bay.
Michael Richardson is an energy and climate change specialist at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore.