Business key to saving Indonesia’s forests, says Al Gore

Palm oil plantation in Bogor
There are alternatives for the development of palm oil plantations, said Al Gore on Sunday as he kicked off the International Year of the Forest in Jakarta. Photo: Achmad Rabin Taim from Jakarta

Former US vice president and environmental campaigner Al Gore kicked off the International Year of the Forests by promoting business solutions for forest conservation to hundreds of lawmakers, environmental advocates and business leaders on Sunday. He was in Jakarta speaking at the Business for the Environment (B4E) summit.

With his trademark blend of humour and gusto, Gore gave kudos to heavily forested Indonesia for making what he called the “hard rights,” by committing to greenhouse gas reductions of up to 41 per cent by 2020. Most of these reductions will be accomplished through reigning in the country’s deforestation rate.

Deforestation causes global warming by releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, and many climate change negotiators have recognised Indonesia as a leader for setting specific CO2 emissions cuts ahead of other developing nations. “This is how change takes place,” Gore noted.

It helps that Indonesia sailed through the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. Indeed, Southeast Asia’s largest economy – one that relies heavily on its natural resource wealth – grew at a clip of six per cent in 2010. But skyrocketing food prices, led by chilli, pose increasing inflationary pressures.

Gore, who jokingly noted the absence of Indonesia’s staple spice in his own meal at Sunday’s Business for the Environment (B4E) event, used crop failure as evidence of the disastrous effects human activity is having on the environment.

Other fallouts include a rise in sea levels, higher temperatures, melting polar ice caps and climate anomalies, such as unseasonable downpours that have led to epic floods in Pakistan and Australia. According to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2010 was the hottest year ever recorded in human history, Gore said, punctuating each piece of data with a nod and a pause for reflection.

The attention devoted to forests in 2011 will draw the world’s focus increasingly toward Indonesia, where deforestation and land use change contribute to almost 80 per cent of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions – arguably the third largest behind the United States and China at 2.1 billion tons.

Participants at December’s United Nations climate change talks in Cancun all agreed that deeper cuts in global carbon emissions are needed, but those discussions failed to produce a legally binding mechanism for helping nations achieve the pledges they have made.

Developed and developing countries alike have hindered climate change negotiations, since developing nations argue that they should not shoulder the burden of curbing CO2 emissions – which could harm economic growth – if the world’s biggest emitters are unwilling to do so.

Frustration that the Cancun talks were going nowhere led representatives from Indonesia to say they would take their own measures to reduce greenhouse gases in the absence of any clear global legislation. Yet behind-the-scenes talks hammered out during the summit’s final day eventually produced an agreement to form a US$100 billion Green Climate Fund that would assist poor nations in low-carbon development.

That fund will be managed by the UN and governed by a 25-member adaptation committee that will help countries set up climate protection plans and determine funding guidelines and opportunities. Indonesia plans to seek a seat on the committee, whose board will include representatives from seven Asian nations.

The Cancun summit also concluded that emission-curbing measures will only come under international oversight if donor money from Western nations is used to fund them.

That makes Indonesia ripe for attention, since Norway has committed $1 billion to deforestation efforts in the country under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation scheme, better known as REDD+, which aims to pay developing nations not to cut down their forests.

Norway plans to release the first $200 million tranche to Indonesia before 2012, with the remaining $800 million provided in increments based on emission reductions from the forestry sector.

In return for the $1 billion donation, Indonesia has agreed to a two-year ban on new forest clearing. The freeze was supposed to take effect January 1 but was delayed after two different government ministries submitted competing drafts to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who must sign off on the regulation before it becomes binding.

The absence of concrete legislation is causing concern that despite its good intentions Indonesia lacks the political will to implement its ambitious emission-reduction plans. It also frustrates palm oil, pulp and paper and mining firms hoping to expand in 2011.

At the crux of the problem are differing views on what type of forest to include in the moratorium. A ministerial-level team tasked with overseeing projects tied to the REDD+ climate deal wants to prevent clearing in both primary and secondary forests, review existing forest-clearing permits and consider extending the two-year ban. The Forestry Ministry, meanwhile, wants only to ban new permits to clear primary forests and peatlands.

Many businesses have warmed to the moratorium, saying it provides them the opportunity to improve the efficiency of their operations. The government has also eased companies’ concerns by noting that plenty of degraded land is available for expansion.

Forest campaigners say the forest-clearing moratorium will be virtually useless of it pertains only to native tropical forest as the Forest Ministry suggests, since this area accounts for only about 3 per cent of Indonesia’s total tree cover.

Indonesia loses 1.08 million hectares of its 120 million hectares of tropical forest each year, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which works with local governments on environmental policy and education.

Business leaders see monetising the forests as a solution to reducing greenhouse gases while also meeting Indonesia’s other development objectives, including job creation, infrastructure development and poverty reduction.

And that was at the heart of Gore’s speech on Sunday. Committing to environmental sustainability enhances a company’s brand, improves its reputation with stakeholders and helps cuts cost through improved efficiency, the Nobel laureate said.

He responded to a question about debate on the forest-clearing moratorium by assuring business leaders it would prove beneficial: “There are alternatives for the development of palm oil plantations,” he said, referring to the commodity whose expansion is most-often associated with deforestation. It’s easier to find solutions for land-use issues than it is to restore biodiversity loss, he added.

The speech by Gore, whose award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” brought climate change into the mainstream, capped a day of workshops and events co-sponsored by the WWF and Indonesia’s Regional Representatives Council.

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