NO ECOSYSTEM IS more important in mitigating the effects of climate change than tropical rainforest. And South-East Asia is home to the world’s third-biggest patch of it, behind the Amazon and Congo basins.
Even though humans release carbon from these forests through logging, clear-felling for agriculture and other disruptions, some are so vast and fecund that the growth of the plants within them absorbs even more from the atmosphere. The Congo basin, for instance, locks up 600m tonnes of carbon a year more than it releases, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), an international NGO that is equivalent to about a third of emissions from all American transport. The Amazon, too, remains a net absorber (though four years of massive fires and clearing for cattle have brought it to a tipping-point). In contrast, such is the extent of clearing for plantations in South-East Asia’s rainforests, which run from Myanmar to Indonesia, that over the past 20 years they have turned from a growing carbon sink to a significant source of emissions—nearly 500m tonnes a year. Indonesia and Malaysia, home to the biggest expanses of pristine forest, have lost more than a third of it this century. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, relative newcomers to deforestation, are making up for lost time.
If that is the sombre backdrop, a couple of pieces of good news help brighten it. First, according to Global Forest Watch, which uses satellite data to track tree cover, loss of virgin forest in Indonesia and Malaysia has slowed for the fourth year in row—a contrast with other parts of the world. For the first time Indonesia is not one of the world’s three worst countries in this respect. Following devastating fires in 2015, the Indonesian government issued a temporary moratorium on new licences for palm-oil plantations and made permanent one on clearing primary forests and peatlands. Though often honoured in the breach, they are clearly having some effect. In 2019 Malaysia imposed a five-year cap on the area under plantations. It also increased penalties for illegal logging.
The second piece of news is an initiative unveiled during President Joe Biden’s recent climate summit. It is intended to make forests more valuable standing than cut down. The LEAF Coalition, backed by America, Britain and Norway, along with such corporate giants as Amazon, Airbnb, and Unilever, aims to create an international marketplace in which carbon credits can be sold for deforestation avoided. An initial $1bn has been pledged to reward countries for protecting forests. South-East Asia could be a big beneficiary: what multinational would pass up the kudos of saving baby orangutans?
Admittedly, curbing deforestation has been a cherished but elusive goal of climate campaigners for ages. A big UN initiative to that end, called REDD+, was launched a decade ago, with Indonesia notably due for help. It never achieved its potential. Projects for conservation must jump through many hoops before approval. The risk is often that a patch of forest here may be preserved at the expense of another patch there. Projects are hard to monitor. The price set for carbon under the scheme, $5 a tonne, has been too low to overcome these hurdles.
The new initiative, argues Frances Seymour of WRI, builds on REDD+ while being mindful of its shortfalls. LEAF will at least double the price of carbon, making conservation more attractive. Whereas buyers of carbon credits under REDD+ pocketed profits from a rise in carbon prices, windfalls will now go to the country that sold the credits. Standards of monitoring, says Ms Seymour, are much improved.
Crucially, the scheme will involve bigger units of land than previous efforts, the so-called jurisdictional approach. That reduces the risk of deforestation simply being displaced from a protected patch to an unprotected one. Besides, says Gita Syahrani, of LTKL, which assists district-level leaders in Indonesia keen to protect forests, it allows for best practice to be shared and for local leaders to understand the political advantage that conservation and the money that backs it can confer.
LEAF comes at a time when big firms have grown more serious about escaping association with deforestation, and when international will is building to cut emissions. Sceptics are right to point out that unscrupulous loggers and plantation owners still have plenty of scope to game the system. But it is possible to think that the prognosis for South-East Asia’s forests is no longer quite so grim.
By The Economist