Climate change: Better REDD than dead?

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.

This, the World Bank says, makes Indonesia the world’s third-largest emitter, behind the United States and China. Although the Indonesian government rejects that label, it admits that a large part of reaching its planned emission cuts will need to be through curbing deforestation.

Enter REDD.

“REDD is very important to Indonesia’s long-term environment plan,” said Frances Seymour, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research. “The president’s recently announced commitment to cut carbon emissions cannot be reached without reductions in emissions from deforestation and degradation.”

Over the last several years, Indonesia has become one of the world’s “hot spots” for REDD demonstration projects and has emerged as a driving force behind the plan. Indonesia hosted the United Nations Climate Conference in Bali in 2007, which produced the Bali Action Plan. It convened the “F11” group of forested countries and it has been one of the first countries to develop regulations to govern REDD.

But as full implementation creeps forward, so does a bevy of obstacles.

Governing REDD will require unprecedented levels of inter-governmental collaboration. Many of the key drivers of deforestation come from outside the forestry sector, such as the ministries of mining, industry and transportation. But such collaboration is virtually nonexistent in the current Indonesian government.

Meanwhile, ownership and control of significant areas of Indonesia’s forests are contested between government agencies, private companies and local communities. All these conflicts, many of them dating back decades, would need to be resolved before the rightful stewards of forest areas can be compensated by REDD schemes.

Perhaps most daunting for Indonesia are problems of legality and corruption. For REDD to be successful, Indonesia will have to institute effective controls on forest crime and develop ways to ensure REDD revenue remains transparent and accountable.

And indigenous groups worry that for them it will be the same old story. Powerful interests would position themselves as the legitimate stewards of the land in order to capture REDD revenue streams, causing indigenous groups to lose access to their forest-based livelihoods.

Still, Indonesia remains optimistic that REDD is the answer to that old stumbling block: “Why should we sacrifice our own development and economy to save an environment destroyed by the already developed world?”

“Many efforts to address deforestation in Indonesia over the last few decades have not shown significant results,” Seymour, whose global operations are based near Jakarta, said. “Currently, government policies that drive forest conversion are justified on the basis of their potential to promote development. If REDD can provide an alternative source of income that can compete with the revenues available from other land uses, it could provide a rationale for change.”

In a sense, Seymour said, REDD could be a mechanism for correcting the market failures that led to the over-exploitation of forests to begin with.

The markets have never valued the ecosystem services provided by forests. REDD could change that, forcing the market on the side of the forests and ultimately on the side of eliminating climate change.