Action can make a difference

Action can make a difference

18 October 2009

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Indonesia — The Bangkok meeting was a disappointment. The international forum held under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) failed to take important decisions that had previously been expected to form the substance of the summit of world leaders in Copenhagen in December.

The complications of Bangkok’s meeting, held from Sept. 28 – Oct. 9, have increased a sense of pessimism about efforts to protect the earth as a proper place for humankind to live together.

Do we seriously intend to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and slow global warming? In theory the answer is “yes”. All countries have espoused their commitment to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. All heads of states have expressed their concern about global warming. But, when it comes to details, concrete actions and taking responsibility, most of those countries avoid making any binding commitments.

Developed countries which, at the UNFCCC meeting, were grouped into Annex I, are now directing negotiations in such a way as to require developing countries to also bear the burden of achieving targets for emissions reduction. This approach is totally different from the previous agreement, which was formulated as “shared, but different, responsibilities”.

In previous meetings, developing countries were asked to reduce their carbon emissions voluntarily, with developed countries assisting them to adapt to climate change through the provision of technical expertise and financial support.

Now, these conditions are to be deleted and all countries are to be bound by emission reduction targets.

At the UNFCCC meeting in Bonn, last August, developed countries demonstrated their reluctance to reduce carbon emissions, committing only to reducing them by 8 – 14 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 emission levels, far below the UN’s expectations of 25 – 40 percent.

Disappointingly, the United States – the country responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions – refused to commit to any reduction targets. Not only that, but it is expected that by the time of the Copenhagen meting at the end of 2009 the US Congress will still not have passed any legislation that will commit the country to any climate change reduction. As a consequence, the US delegation will have no mandate to make any commitment to the UNFCCC.

Developing countries, especially China and the G77, strongly oppose the new position of developed countries. They argue that it is not simply about the need to slow the rate of emissions, but there also needs to be fairness in the use of the atmosphere as the site of carbon storage.

Of the greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere, 70 percent come from developed countries which began their process of industrialization a century ago. Therefore, they have to take responsibility for emission reduction and commit to targets, while developing countries, such as Indonesia, are prepared to take steps to also reduce their emissions, but on voluntarily bases.

Voluntarism is perhaps the key word that should be used during the next round of UNFCCC meetings. Considering the complexities of relations between countries, building a commitment through obligation will always be very difficult to achieve. A never ending debate can ensue, with different countries accusing each other of being the worst polluter, while simultaneously evading responsibility. In such a situation, maybe a voluntary approach would be more effective. Voluntarism, combined with consistent action, could offer the inspiration to nations to tackle the climate change problem.

In Europe, Norway has been showing its leadership in this regard by voluntarily committing to an ambitious emission reduction target aimed at bringing them to 40 percent below the country’s 1990 emission levels. Meanwhile, Japan’s recently elected prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has increased his country’s target on emission reduction to 25 percent, compared to the 8 percent committed by his predecessor. Japan’s new policy anticipates a dramatic change in the country’s energy structure, with much greater dependence on solar power and some major changes within the automotive industry.

At the G20 meeting, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, unveiled Indonesia’s voluntary commitment to reduce its emissions by 26 percent compared to 2005 levels. If developed countries are prepared to provide technical assistance and funds to help spur the low-carbon economy, Indonesia could even reduce its emissions by as much as 40 percent.

Although the Yudhoyono’s voluntarily pledge was warmly welcomed by many of the participants at the Bangkok UNFCCC meeting, it was unfortunately not enough to inspire them to take action to agree on a global commitment.

Indonesia is the third-largest carbon emitter in the world, after the United States and China, with total emissions in 2005 estimated at the equivalent of 2.8 billion tons of CO2. Of this, forestry and peat land conversion contributed around 2.4 billions tons, meaning that more than 85 percent of Indonesia’s carbon emissions come from these two sectors – deforestation and bad peat land management. To fulfill his voluntary commitment, Yudhoyono must therefore begin to revise past decisions that encourage deforestation, such as government regulations that allow mining companies to operate in protected forests. Deforestation, which affects more than 1 million hectares per annum, must be stopped immediately.

Peat land conversion into palm oil plantations has become of increasing concern in the recent years. To make matters even worse, in February 2009 the Agriculture Minister issued a decree that gave licenses for the conversion of peat lands with a depth of up to 3 meters into plantations. Previously, only peat lands with a depth of up to 2 meters could be converted.

In the field, this regulation is very difficult to control. In Jambi province, for example, some peat land with a depth of 7 meters is nevertheless being converted. Each hectare of 3 meter deep peat land contains 1,800 tons of carbon which will be released when converted into plantation land.

This is why peat land burning is the biggest carbon emitter in Indonesia. The president can reduce Indonesian carbon emissions very significantly if he stops deforestation and the conversion of peat lands into palm oil plantations.

Although the Bangkok meeting failed to reach an agreement, voluntarily initiatives have emerged from various countries, such as Indonesia, Norway, and Japan. World citizens await the results of these initiatives in their respective countries. Indonesia has an opportunity to pioneer this voluntarily movement, provided it can demonstrate a consistent commitment to producing and implementing environmentally sound policies.

The path to preventing continued global warming is a winding and complex one, but voluntary initiatives can make a difference.

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