Holding Up The Sky

Sep 25, 2011

Indonesia has set ambitious targets to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions that will require major changes in how forests and agricultural lands are managed.

1135 Will REDD protect forests against fire? Photo: Daniel Beltra

Indonesia is one of the first nations from the global south to commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Three quarters of Indonesia’s emissions result from deforestation and land degradation, so meeting this commitment will require major changes in how the country manages its forests. Many groups are hoping that efforts to reduce deforestation will include respecting the right of traditional communities to own and manage their customary forests.

The challenges are enormous. In 2006, reports by the World Bank and Wetlands International revealed that the destruction of Indonesia’s forests and peatlands were causing very high emissions of greenhouse gases, making Indonesia the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, after the USA and China. At first Indonesian officials denied the reports but studies over the coming years confirmed that deforestation and peat soil loss was releasing about two billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. Per capita greenhouse emissions in Indonesia are therefore about ten tons annually, higher than China (five tons per year) and similar to Europe (eight to ten tons a year), but less than half the per capita emissions in Australia or the US (both more than 20 tons).

Climate villain to global leader

In 2009, the President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, announced at the G20 Major Economies Summit in Pittsburgh, USA, that by 2020 Indonesia would unilaterally reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 per cent below business as usual projections, and by up to 41 per cent with international support. As about 80 per cent of Indonesian emissions are a result of forestry and agriculture, these sectors are where Indonesia is planning to cut emissions to achieve the target. In May 2010, Indonesia signed a Letter of Intent with Norway to undertake measures to reduce its emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Under the agreement, Norway will provide one billion dollars over five years to assist efforts to reduce emissions, including a two-year moratorium on granting new forest conversion permits. In May 2011, President Yudhoyono issued an Instruction requiring a two-year moratorium on the issuing of new licenses for development in primary forests and peat lands. A Presidential Task Force is developing Indonesia’s national plan for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (known as REDD+), and will monitor implementation of the moratorium. REDD+ can include activities that maintain and increase carbon stocks, such as low impact logging and tree planting, as well as efforts to reduce deforestation.

Indonesia has about 20 million hectares of peat swamp forests, which contain some 40 billion tons of carbon. Peat swamps are areas where the water table is at or above ground level for most of the year. Leaves, sticks and dead animals falling into the swamp do not rot due to the acid conditions, and build up as soil organic matter which can reach more than ten metres in depth. As the pulpwood and oil palm industries seek to expand operations in Indonesia today, there are few available areas of mineral soils which haven’t already been cleared for agriculture or are reserved for permanent forests. Peat swamps offer some of the few areas where companies can obtain  permits to convert large contiguous areas of forest into agriculture. But clearing and draining peat soils releases about 70 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare per year. Whether or not Indonesia can revise its plans to clear and drain its remaining peat forests is yet to be seen.

Although the Indonesian president made a clear commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the ministries of forestry and agriculture and the industries which they serve lobbied successfully for the right to continue to clear forests during the moratorium period if in principle permits for forest conversion had already been issued. Commentators have noted that in many districts such permits already cover most of the available forests. As an alternative to reducing deforestation, the forestry department is planning to plant a billion trees as a way to absorb carbon dioxide. However, it takes decades for the carbon released into the atmosphere by clearing a forest to be drawn down again by the trees in a plantation. The simplest way for Indonesia to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to stop deforestation, and to force plantation expansion to take place on lands that have already been cleared. There are signs that industry is starting to move in the right direction.

The simplest way for Indonesia to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to stop deforestation, and to force plantation expansion to take place on lands that have already been cleared.

Industry takes the lead?

Following a campaign by Greenpeace targetting its international consumers, including Unilever and Nestle, in February this year, Golden Agri Resources (GAR), one of the largest oil palm plantation companies in Indonesia, owned by the conglomerate Sinar Mas, announced that it will no longer convert peat forests and will only establish oil palm plantations on areas which contain less than 35 tons of carbon per hectare. If implemented, this means the company will not clear degraded secondary forests, and will limit its plantation establishment to existing agricultural areas or grasslands. While it remains to be seen if the company can abide by its commitment (it made a similar promise in early 2010 which was immediately broken) it is helpful in showing government and industry that companies are willing to give up on expanding the agricultural frontier, and can leave the country’s remaining rainforests and peat forests standing.

1136 Women from Teluk Meranti in Riau Province, Sumatra protest at the office of Pelalawan district government, pressing for recognition of their rights over the forest areas licensed to the APRIL pulp and paper company, August 2010. Photo: Rini RamadhantiGAR’s accouncement included a commitment to respect the rights of indigenous peoples, and to identify and protect high conservation values before establising plantations, which are requirements of the voluntary international standard for oil palm, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).