Emissions Cuts Make Sense, But Yudhoyono’s Numbers Don’t Add Up

Emissions Cuts Make Sense, But Yudhoyono’s Numbers Don’t Add Up

25 October 2009

published by thejakartaglobe.com

Indonesia — The Copenhagen climate summit, hoped to produce a successor to the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol, is just around the corner. While many developed nations have yet to make any meaningful commitments (principally the United States, the world’s biggest carbon emitter that has a mandate to reduce emissions), Indonesia’s delegation will head to the conference with the proud distinction of having vowed to cut emissions by at least a quarter of current levels by 2020.

For those expecting concrete efforts to tackle global warming, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s announcement at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh last month came as a pleasant surprise for several reasons. First, Indonesia had been one of the main global emitters without any emissions reduction target, due its status as a non-Annex 1 country under the Kyoto agreement. Substantial cuts in the country’s emissions would provide a more solid platform to reduce global carbon emissions. Also, this reductions goal — if met — would cement our country’s position as a climate leader that began with our leadership role in the 2007 Bali conference on climate change.

Nonetheless, skeptics remain unsure about how the country can meet such an ambitious goal. According to analysis by the National Council on Climate Change, our country emit 2.3 gigatons of C02-equivalent gases in 2005, mainly from the forestry and agriculture sectors as well as power generation, industry and transportation. If we assume that the figure hasn’t risen since then, meeting our pledge would mean emissions need to be trimmed by some 0.6 gigatons.

Despite the promises of wiser energy policies, the reduction is unlikely to stem from the industry and transportation fields, as over the next few years economic development will remain the focus of national policy. Emissions from these two sectors will likely be business as usual, leaving them at current levels at best. Given the recent global economic slumps, one can expect similar scenarios in even economically advanced nations. Some “climate champions” such as Japan, Germany, Poland and Italy are now seen hesitant to take a stand in pledging cuts.

Given these demands, our government is apparently expecting to garner a good deal of emissions savings from the forestry sector, mainly from REDD-schemes (reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation) and perhaps from reforestation projects. The former promotes avoided emissions while the latter works by absorbing carbon already in the atmosphere.

It is quite difficult to obtain reliable analysis on emissions that stem from deforestation and degradation due to methodological issues. Also, the National Carbon Accounting System, being introduced to measure levels of carbon and other greenhouse gases, has yet to publish official reports. Nonetheless, a rough approximation can be projected from global estimates of carbon emissions from deforestation and degradation.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the world loses 13 million hectares of forests annually, emitting 0.8-2.4 gigatons of carbon. Assuming a deforestation rate in Indonesia of one million hectares a year — and the rate is far higher if the data of several environmental advocacy groups are used — carbon emissions originating from our nation’s deforestation and forest degradation might reach 0.15 gigatons a year. In addition, emissions from forest fires need to be taken into consideration. One study published in Nature in 2002 concluded that forest fires in 1998 released at least 0.8 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, although we can assume that forest fires in Indonesia do not indeed reach that magnitude.

All of this means that sustainable forest management — management that results in neither deforestation nor forest fires — can only avoid a fraction of SBY’s reduction commitment. Add to that the fact that our country seems hapless in controlling forest degradation and fires.

The government regularly launches counterproductive forest policies, putting more pressure on the currently degraded natural forests. For example, it encourages the expansion of pulp and paper industries with raw materials from natural forests in order to compete with “plantation giants” from Northern Europe and North America.

In addition, the expansion of palm oil plantations emits carbon in two ways: first, by conversion of natural forests into agricultural land, and second, by using burning to clear land as it is the cheapest and “most effective” technique. In fact, recent forest fires have been occurring mainly around plantation areas. Taken all together, these factors make meeting the targets more elusive.

There may be a case for saying that a reduction in carbon peat emissions is possible. Indonesia is home to massive peat swamps — about 20 million hectares in all — that store carbon underground. If the landscape is altered, the covered carbon will be emitted when the peat is exposed to the air. Nonetheless, estimates on the carbon stored and the current level of emissions due to land-use changes are rather limited. Research and studies are on the way, but scientists are not yet confident about producing solid data. In addition, given the continuous land-use changes in the country, principally into plantations, one can expect limited avoided emissions from this area.

A second emission reduction scheme through afforestation and reforestation looks similarly unpromising. According to a report by the Forestry Ministry, between 2003 and 2007 approximately four million hectares of degraded forests and non-forest areas were rehabilitated through reforestation programs. The emerging problem, however, lies in evidence that it takes years for the “new forests” to effectively absorb atmospheric carbon.

Clearly, Indonesia needs to be careful in setting targets on emission reductions, as the rough analysis reveals that many possible emissions mitigation schemes do not add up to meet SBY’s targets. Equally important, the current forest-related policies do not favor efforts to avoid future emissions. Indeed, the country has no mandate to set any targets on carbon reduction. But if our delegation arrives in Copenhagen without proper analysis and detailed plans to meet the promises, we might be in for an embarrassing time. More importantly, delegates should not sign an agreement that requires mandatory emission cuts merely for the applause of other nations.

Ahmad Maryudi is a lecturer at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

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