High Stakes on a Greenhouse Gas Conference in Bali

The 12-day United Nations conference that got underway today on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali is the world’s largest global warming conference ever. According to UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon, it is expected to lead to a “comprehensive climate change deal that all nations can embrace.”

While the main agenda of the protracted powwow, under the aegis of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is to come up with a common strategy to combat global warming, Ban’s optimism on what may be achieved seems somewhat misplaced.

A UN Human Development Report released a week ago warns that unless the international community agrees to cut carbon emissions by half over the next generation, climate change is likely to cause "large-scale human and economic setbacks and irreversible catastrophes."

Developing nations, or at least those with substantial tropical forest reserves to bargain with, will use the Bali conference to ask the richer nations, those with obligations under the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emission, to pay to save their rainforests.

Yet Yvo de Boer, the UNFCCC’s executive secretary and the UN'S chief climate negotiator, has already warned that that those who expect the conference to result in specific targets or long-term solutions "will leave disappointed."

In other words there is unlikely to be any defining moment for climate change.

Kyoto, the 1997 UN climate treaty, which has been ratified by 172 countries, obliges 36 industrial nations to meet targeted curbs of 5 percent in greenhouse gas emission levels by 2012, compared to 1990 levels. Developing countries have so far been exempt from committing to reduce emissions, which is why the US and Australia have refused to ratify it.

Although total greenhouse emissions of the industrialized countries rose to record highs in 2005, Kyoto is “fatally flawed" in the eyes of the Bush administration, which argues that its prescribed emission cuts could cripple America’s economy.

While Australia's new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has said he plans to sign on to Kyoto in the very near future, effectively isolating the US, de Boer says that designing a long-term response to climate change that “does not include the world's largest emitter and the world's largest economy just would not make any sense."

Indonesia: a test case

North v South, or developed v developing, whatever the words used to describe imaginary battle lines in Bali, the host country, Indonesia, is firmly in the middle.

Sir Nicholas Stern, former World Bank chief economist and adviser to the UK government, and author of the definitive “Economics of Climate Change” report, published last year, had a bleak message for Indonesia, warning that its geography means unchecked climate change is likely to mean more disasters.

"Island states are very vulnerable to sea level rise and very vulnerable to storms. Indonesia with 17,000 islands of course is particularly vulnerable," Stern wrote.

Yet while it is one of the countries most vulnerable to the impact of climate change Indonesia lags behind only the US and China, as the biggest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet, thanks largely to decades of rampant deforestation, which still accounts for some 63 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions

Around 2 million hectares of Indonesian forests are illegally cleared each year, but with 120 million hectares remaining, the country still has the world’s third largest forest area after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo and accounts for around 10 percent of the world's remaining tropical forest.

Jakarta has proposed a so called REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) mechanism, as a replacement for Kyoto. Under the scheme, advanced countries would pay forested countries to protect forests, instead of exploiting them, by paying them incentives for not felling trees.

Indonesia and the other forested countries would market tonnes of carbon stored in their forests to developed countries. The REDD carbon price would lie somewhere between US$10 and $18 per metric ton of carbon, according to estimates by government planners.

While forested countries could rake in billions of dollars from REDD, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who last week launched a massive Rp1.28 trillion (US$136.5 million) tree planting campaign, believes there is much more at stake for Indonesia than that. He says that preventing self-inflicted disasters is the country's main aim, not "planting trees just as a show to get a picture printed in the papers", or because Indonesia is host to the conference.

Some 79 million trees will be planted in more than 78,000 different locations, in a campaign which Yudhoyono says shows “Indonesia's commitment to preserving the environment and saving our planet."

The country's forestry minister, MS Kaban, has even worked out that industrialized countries have already run up a debt of some Rp6 trillion (US$638.5 million) this year alone in Indonesia. He claimed recently that so far in 2007 only 5.5 million cubic meters of trees have been felled in production forests, as against an annual need of 12 million cubic meters needed.

While the president has declared the fight against illegal logging as one of his priorities, the bark could turn out to be worse than the bite, unless he takes on the huge vested interests involved in the lucrative theft of the country's timber.

While the Stern report noted that despite having policies and legislation in place that favor sustainable forest management, it said that the government’s capacity to implement and enforce laws is still weak.

Kaban is in hot water over alleged interference in the judicial process after Adelin Lis, a timber baron accused of destroying 58,000 hectares of virgin forest in Sumatra and causing some Rp300 trillion (US$32.6 billion) in state losses, was last month freed of all charges.

Prosecutors had asked for a 10 year jail sentence, as well as millions of dollars in fines for Lis, who had fled to China before being caught there in March this after a seven-month manhunt.

His release, after a letter from Kaban presented at the trial claimed the logging activities were not a crime, but simply an administrative error, was seen as a huge slap in the face for law enforcers in their operations against illegal logging.

Kaban has continually claimed that these operations hurt the country’s pulp and paper sector, which is almost monopolized by Indah Kiat Pulp and Paper and Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper, subsidiaries of Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings (April) respectively, two of the biggest players..

With seed capital of $US200 million from the World Bank to help create a global forest carbon protection fund, Indonesia now has the motivation it needs to fight cronyism practices that have destroyed nearly half its forests,. The president has already taken aim by ordering Kaban, a week before the Bali event, to stop awarding logging concessions.

The alternative? More flooding, landslides, lowering of the water table, and ecological and environmental destruction.