Connect to share and comment

Climate change: Better REDD than dead?

Indonesia is taking a bigger role in its CO2 responsibilities.

A villager walks through a burnt forest at the Pangkalan Kerinci district in Pelalawan, on the Indonesia island of Sumatra, Oct. 9, 2006. The destruction of forests is believed to account for one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, 40 percent of which comes from the clearing of Indonesia's forests together with the draining and burning of its peat lands. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Nothing has changed. Indonesians still see money in their trees. But where once they saw money in destroying them, they are now beginning to see money in saving them.

Indonesia, in fact, has for the last three years been leading the push for the passage of a plan called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, known as REDD, by the United Nations Climate Change Council.

And now, the once fairy-tale scheme could be the lone concrete accomplishment to come out of the ongoing climate change talks in Copenhagen. Though its implementation is fraught with complications, the idea is simple: Reward developing countries with carbon credits, potentially worth billions of dollars, for sustaining their forests.

Indonesia’s enthusiasm is not noble. The government sees the scheme as a potential windfall, as well as a way for it to crawl out from beneath its reputation as one of the world’s worst polluters — an important goal as it positions itself, for the first time in its history, on the world stage.

To this end, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced earlier this year that his administration would work toward cutting emissions by at least 26 percent by 2020. Curbing emissions from deforestation would be an essential part of that goal.

“We don’t want to sacrifice the welfare of our people,” said Rachmat Witoeler, a former environment minister and Indonesia’s lead negotiator in Copenhagen. “But we can make serious efforts to cut down on those factors that cause carbon emissions.”

The destruction of forests is now believed to account for one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Forty percent of that, according to a 2007 World Bank report, comes from the clearing of Indonesia’s forests, together with the draining and burning of its peat lands, which contain vast stores of carbon.

This destruction is only accelerating as the global demand for palm oil, which is used in cooking and cosmetics and, lately, in a popular biodiesel, increases. Palm oil was once thought to be a sustainable alternative, but the process of clearing land for palm plantations has had the reverse effect.

In Riau, a province in Sumatra that is about the size of Switzerland, the situation is particularly dire. Vast expanses of land have been reduced to smoldering ruins, twisted stumps the only sign of what once was.

Villagers there regularly clash with pulp and paper giants that are cutting an ever-expanding swath to make way for plantations with little to no oversight. In the past 10 years, according to Jikalahari, a local environmental group in Riau, 60 percent of the province’s forests have been logged, burned and pulped.