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James Bacchus

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Indonesian Forest Plan May Be Breakthrough on Climate Change

Posted: 05/24/11 06:30 PM ET


While a majority of the United States House of Representatives continues to hinder U.S. climate actions nationally and internationally by denying that climate change is real and man-made, other countries continue to work together to try to stop it. They have now achieved what may prove to be a notable breakthrough in the battle against global warming with a new plan to protect the remaining virgin forests of Indonesia.

Although little noted thus far in the United States, Indonesia has just announced the details of a far-reaching program intended to diminish forest destruction and thereby reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are the main cause of climate change. Key to the plan is a two-year moratorium on the issuance of new permits to clear more than 150 million acres of primary forest and carbon-intensive peatlands scattered across the several time zones spanning the thousands of equatorial islands of the vast Indonesian archipelago.

The plan is a response to a pledge last year by Norway to invest up to $1 billion in Indonesian conservation efforts if Indonesia would get serious about halting the many devastations of deforestation. The Norwegian offer is part of an ongoing international effort to put forest protection front and center in trying to overcome the serial disappointments of recent worldwide climate summits and begin to put together an effective global architecture to combat climate change.

The $1 billion in financing by Norway for "verified emissions reductions" in Indonesia is one of the first concrete results of a United Nations-backed undertaking called "REDD" -- a climate acronym for an emerging international agreement to achieve "Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation." Climate negotiators and campaigners hope REDD will become a building block for an eventual comprehensive global climate treaty.

Forests are "sinks" that soak up carbon and store it in trees. About half of the dry weight of a tree consists of stored carbon. When a tree rots or burns, carbon is released into the air and adds to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The decimation of the world's native forests by the ongoing march of human agriculture and human industrialization has been a major factor in emitting more carbon into the earth's atmosphere than there has been for the past four million years.

Between 15% and 20% of all greenhouse gases worldwide result from deforestation -- an amount equal to the emissions of all the world's cars, trucks, trains, ships, and planes combined. Eighty thousand acres of tropical rainforest are lost every day. An area the size of Costa Rica is lost to deforestation every year. The United Nations Environment Program has concluded that deforestation must be cut in half by 2020 to achieve the goals the world's governments have set for themselves in international climate change agreements.

About half of the remaining forest in the world is in the tropics. Much of it is rainforest, which stores ten times as much carbon as northern native forest. Rainforest, of course, is home to a cornucopia of biodiversity in the form of an ecosystem graced by literally thousands of endangered species of flora and fauna containing genetic resources of immeasurable potential.

About one-fifth of the remaining rainforest in the world is in Indonesia. The Indonesian forests have long been under assault from ax and plow alike. Indonesia has lost about 40% of its forest in the past fifty years. Roughly 1.2 million acres have been lost in each of the past ten years.

Indonesia has been growing rapidly recently, with high hopes of feeding both the hunger and the aspirations of a people who have suffered much in the past and yearn now for a brighter future. But, coupled with this growth, a combination of logging, crop growing, cattle grazing, and peat burning has caused a level of deforestation that has made Indonesia the world's third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases -- after China and the United States.

Now President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia has signed a decree that may become a landmark step toward shifting from rhetoric to action and truly tackling climate change by reducing deforestation. And he has done so, significantly, as part of an overall international endeavor. He has done so, too, in a way that acknowledges implicitly that climate change is an inherently global challenge that can best be confronted successfully by cooperative global action.

The Indonesian plan is not all that anyone wanted. There is something in it, or not in it, to disappoint everyone. Some business interests say it goes too far in restricting development. Some environmentalists say it does not go far enough. Questions aplenty remain for Indonesia about how the balance should best be struck between economic production and environmental preservation in implementing the plan.

Much is at stake, for example, for the Indonesian growers who serve the world's $50 billion market for palm oil, a basic ingredient in everything from soap and cake to chocolate and margarine. Indonesia is the world's leading producer of palm oil. The Indonesian plan appears to ban new palm oil production in virgin forests while focusing on more sustainable production through increased productivity on existing plantations and through expanded planting on already "degraded" secondary lands.

Much is at stake, too, for many imperiled animal species. Indonesian authorities will want to heed the warning by Greenpeace that large areas of forest untouched by human hands may be left out of the plan. Of particular concern to all everywhere should be the possibility that these omitted areas could include the last native habitats of such irreplaceable species as the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger. These priceless habitats must be preserved.

Yet even the spokesman for Greenpeace was careful to acknowledge in response to the Indonesian announcement that "this moratorium represents an important political shift towards protecting our forests." And, as Norwegian Environment Minister Eric Solheim said in welcoming the moratorium, it represents a "very serious development choice" by Indonesia.

After centuries of colonial rule, followed by long decades of post-colonial struggles, a democratic Indonesia is emerging at last into maturity and into a role of global influence appropriate for the fourth most populous country in the world and the largest economy in Southeast Asia. In embracing this forest plan, ambitious reformers in Indonesia are signaling not only their wish to serve their people by continuing to fuel balanced and sustainable growth for Indonesia, but also their intent to accept their responsibility for keeping their commitment to reduce Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2020.

This is an important signal to the wider world. Too bad this news from the far side of the planet has received so little attention to date from the U.S. press or from U.S. politicians. Maybe those Members of Congress who continue to deny there is such a thing as climate change might be inspired to equally visionary action in confronting it if they knew of the example being set by the Government of Indonesia.