Climate Change: Does Southeast Asia Care?

At a time when a major United Nations body produced a damning report that climate change is real and that human influence is the cause, in Southeast Asia nobody appears to be paying attention, except for a few NGOs and those whose eyes are smarting from haze.

In long and nearly impenetrable bureaucratic language, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered its strongest report yet, warning that governments have ignored the profound risk from climate change, with greenhouse emissions rising faster than ever. About half of cumulative manmade CO2 emissions between 1710 and 2010 have occurred in the past 40 years, the report notes.

Only a concentrated endeavor by nations acting together over the next decade and a half can stave off planetary warming, the report found.

“We cannot afford to lose another decade,” Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist and co-chairman of the committee that wrote the report, told the media in Berlin. “If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.”

The report was criticized by Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish climate skeptic and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, who said in a prepared release that cutting CO2 to a 2C limit will cost at least 4 percent of global GDP in 2030 and up to 11 percent in 2100, assuming all countries begin climate mitigation immediately via carbon pricing.

Lomborg has said in the past that instead of subsidizing what he calls current ineffective green technologies, the world should be investing as much as US$100 billion a year in alternative energy technologies to find breakthroughs that would make green energy affordable on its own instead of through heavy subsidies for wind and solar power. Investment in R&D for green energy, Lomborg said, would pay back US$11 for every dollar spent on research, while current policies focused on cutting CO2 will only pay back 2 cents for every dollar spent.

Meanwhile, there is little effort apparent to control emissions in Southeast Asia. The skies over much of Malaysia and Singapore are blotted out for months at a time by smoke drifting across from Kalimantan and Sumatra, where millions of hectares of old-growth tropical rainforest continue to fall to oil palm plantations.

The attitude is perhaps best expressed by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has repeatedly pointed out that the west, including the United States and the countries of Europe, have largely denuded their own forests for economic reasons and are now demanding that the tropical nations stop doing the same to save them, to what Mahathir calls their economic detriment.

Indeed, there is plenty of reason for Mahathir’s assertions of hypocrisy. According to a the US Forest Service, roughly 200 million acres (80.94 million hectares) were cleared in the second half of the 19th Century alone, with the result that there are almost no forests left east of the Mississippi river.

With the situation growing more critical today, however, the tropical states may have to do their part. Deforestation, primarily from Brazil and Indonesia, is estimated to release 1.6 gigatonnes of carbon per year into the atmosphere, according to a study by the Center for International Forestry Research. That represents 13 to 19 percent of global emissions, amounting to more than the entire global transport sector. Deforestation Brazil and Indonesia between them equal the entire combined carbon reduction commitments of all the 42 nations of the so-called “Annex 1” of the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change established in 1997.

Although Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced in 2010 that the country would put a stop to deforestation for two years in 2011, the moratorium has largely been ignored as evidenced by the smoke plumes seen from satellites boiling up from the state of Kalimantan. In Malaysia, the Borneo state of Sarawak has lost as much as 90 percent of its primary forest to logging, most of it illegal, to benefit the pocketbook of the chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud.

That isn’t to say all the news is bad. In 2013, the plantation giant Sinar Mas and its logging unit, Asia Pulp & Paper, became an unlikely hero, reaching a wary agreement with Greenpeace to end the clearing of rainforest through its Indonesian supply chain. As Greenpeace noted, Asia Pulp & Paper has a long history of failure to deliver on conservation pledges. But a continued monitoring by Greenpeace and other NGOs has produced “evidence of strong commitment by some key senior staff at APP and Sinarmas Forestry to follow up the forest conservation policy.

After years of intense campaigning by Greenpeace against Sinar Mas, the brand won points with environmentalists when its $2.3 billion palm oil arm, Golden Agri Resources, agreed to stop destroying carbon-rich forests, pledging to only log forestland with 35 tons or less of carbon per hectare, in other words, degraded land.

AS Reuters reported last year, there are big questions over compliance with the international scheme called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), under which Norway pledged $1 billion to Indonesia to stop issuing new permits to log its forests. The scheme aims to monetize carbon stocks locked in forests, preventing their release into the atmosphere and thereby mitigating climate change.

Activists have launched major campaigns against key companies with international exposure such as Unilever and Nestle, both of which are major purchasers of palm oil. Unilever was the first to notice, taking leadership at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a body that sets eco-standards. Nestle followed, establishing a policy to exclude deforestation from its palm oil supply chain. Others have followed. However, the evidence is clear that there is a long and disheartening journey to go, when the burning season starts and the haze over Singapore, Malaysia and waypoints obscures the skies.