Indonesia — Because a report published on the eve of the visit to Jakarta by Lord Stern, the British Climate Change expert, late in 2007, said so. On the basis of that report, the Indonesian government is being pressed to adopt a strategy to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030.
The pitch is that this is an opportunity for Jakarta to show global leadership at this critical time as the international community gears up to settle a new agreement on climate change at Copenhagen in December. The reality is different. No new agreement can be struck for several years. It will take that long to narrow the gaps between the positions of the US, EU, India and China.
Yet an impressive set of interests is working quietly to coax the Indonesian Government into this role. It includes the World Bank, the UK’s aid agency (DFID), as well as trenchant opponents of Indonesia’s current development strategies – the World Wide Fund for Nature, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
Like Lord Stern’s findings which were severely criticized by development economists world wide as unnecessarily harmful to poor countries, the 40 percent target would harm Indonesia, plausibly reducing its GDP in today’s dollars by 9 percent. Poverty would rise, not fall. Today, official estimates rate 35 million Indonesians as poverty- stricken. Indonesia’s population is also slated to increase by 44 million.
No other leading developing country will go that far. China has decreed climate change is a “development” problem. While reforming its dirty industries, it will continue to increase, not reduce, its emission of greenhouse gases, until poverty is under control. That may not be until 2030 according to assessments by Chinese economic planning agencies.
Why are leading development bodies advancing such anti-growth strategies? The answer is saddening. Like environmental groups, they now attach more importance to seeing an end to conversion of forest land, than to an end of poverty.
They haven’t even got their environmental facts straight. Biodiversity is protected by setting up conservation areas, not freezing conversion of forest land. The UN decreed years ago that ten percent of the world’s forests needed to be reserved for that purpose. That target has already been met. In Indonesia’s case, over 20 percent of forest land has been set aside.
The remaining land is a resource asset available to raise living standards, and was used that way in Europe and North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ambition of activists is to deny the same right to developing countries.
Indonesia showed how to use that land to reduce poverty when it sponsored introduction of Palm Oil in the seventies and eighties. The World Bank, then in a pro-development mode, commended that as effective poverty-reducing action. Malaysia has done the same. Palm Oil can encourage small holders to acquire property and prosperity. It is now a major export industry for both countries and Indonesia is the world’s biggest producer.
Palm Oil in fact is something of a miracle product. It is a high quality and low priced food staple in the developing world. It is also a highly sustainable. It produces more oil from less land than other vegetable oils. Properly managed, Palm Oil plantations will also outperform traditional forest as a carbon sink.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN *s research body on global warming, pointed out in its last assessment that building bigger carbon sinks by expanding sustainably managed forests was the easiest and cheapest way to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.
This has been an inconvenient truth for environmental NGOs for a long time. Their long term ambition has been instead to ensure global agreements on climate change restrict, not promote, forestry in developing countries.
Hence the incredible attack in recent months on Palm Oil: It is just too successful. Western brand food and consumer companies have been “greenmailed” to cease using Palm Oil. It has been blamed for devastation of forestry, peat lands, and Orang-utan. The EU has been pressured to restrict imports of biofuel (read diesel from Palm Oil).
Until the 2007 report, Indonesia was rated only between fifteenth and twentieth on the global scale. So why the change?
It was the surge of emissions of carbon dioxide from the fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan from the late nineties. And the realization that the fires were also occurring in carbon intense peat soils.
Suddenly very large numbers for emissions of greenhouse gases in Indonesia were produced, almost overnight. The 2007 report was produced in three weeks, and, by its own emission, based on desk research and consultation with anti-forestry NGOs, like Greenpeace.
The key piece of research on global emissions used in that report warned it was subject to a margin of error of 50 percent either way in its calculations. In other words, these are highly uncertain numbers. As well, as new and recent research on the impact of clearance of peat soils reveals, the impact of fire and plantation forestry on peat land is really not known.
The 2007 report also assumes that the firing of peat land will continue in the future at the same rate. There is no basis for that assumption. All scientists accept that the El Nino weather cycle created exceptionally dry conditions in the late nineties and early eighties, creating a very fire prone environment. Only environmental activists, and it seems the World Bank and DFID, assume that that is a permanent condition.
Proper research is required. It is a tempting time for developing countries to receive aid to work out how to address these problems.
Around US$ 800 million has been pledged so far. Yet the lesson of the Trojan Horse should not be forgotten.
The opportunity for leadership Indonesia might consider is to commission independent research on the carbon cycle in Indonesian forest and plantations and determine in its own good time a strategy that best meets it development needs.