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COP27: Indonesia receives plaudits for deforestation action, but globally, trees keep falling

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Indonesia has received affirmation of its attempts to rein in previously rampant deforestation, as ministers convened at the United Nations climate summit in Egypt.

At a panel discussion on Indonesia’s efforts to make its forest and land use segment a net carbon sink by 2030, officials labelled the country a leading light for the rest of the world to follow on a complex and critical issue.

“Indonesia has been trying very hard. Our deforestation rates have dropped significantly,” said Dr Siti Nurbaya, the country’s minister for environment and forestry.

Last year, Indonesia was a rare success story, recording a 25 per cent drop in deforestation rates, similar to its neighbour, Malaysia, making Southeast Asia the only region in the world on track to end the harmful practice by 2030.

Forests are crucial tools in efforts to slow down the onset of climate change. It is estimated that they absorb nearly one-third of all carbon emissions. But their effectiveness is still being compromised by human activity.

Indonesia updated its climate targets ahead of COP26 in Glasgow last year, to target a pathway to a low carbon economy and for its most polluting sector – forestry and land use – to reach emissions peak by 2030.

“The promise being made at the moment with nature is a really big promise,” Zac Goldsmith, the UK Minister for Asia, Energy, Climate and Environment told the panel, which was convened on Wednesday (Nov 9).

“We rely, all of us around the world, on Indonesia’s success. Indonesia is doing a global service of protecting these extraordinary natural treasures. If Indonesia fails, we all fail and if Indonesia succeeds, we have a chance globally to succeed,” he said.

“Our hope is that Indonesia will be a guiding star on tropical forests for other countries,” said Anne Beathe Tvinnereim, Norway’s Minister for International Development.

Global deforestation decreased by only 6.3 per cent in 2021, a modest improvement that fell short of international goals, according to the Forest Declaration Assessment.

At COP26, 145 countries signed a pledge to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 as a tool to combat climate change. That would mean a necessary 10 per cent annual decrease in deforestation and the restoration of 350 million hectares of forest land.

The progress has been slow since then. Both nations and private companies have fallen short on their commitments so far.

Goldsmith said that the pledge still carried weight and was an important commitment that the UK would continue to pursue, despite Indonesia initially being one of the countries to express concerns about its wording and requirements.

“I think it was an amazing declaration. And it was unprecedented. Our job now as the UK is to ensure that those promises aren’t just paper promises. We all will be ruthlessly held to account,” he said.

Others are less glowing about the pledge, especially with a lack of perceived action since.

“Glasgow was what I call an empty promise. You sort of duped developing countries to make pledges about stopping deforestation, with promises of finance that have not materialised,” said Kevin Conrad, the Special Envoy of Climate Change for Papua New Guinea and executive director of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations.

“It’s a difficult situation for, again, developing countries when they’re trying to do the right thing. They’re actually doing the right thing, but yet they’re doing it themselves.

“And these are some of the poorest countries that have done the most in terms of reductions, but they’ve done it without compensation,” he said.

He wants to see the voices of indigenous peoples and local communities amplified further at the COP and in ongoing climate conversations, given their critical role in protecting forested lands. Funding that is promised to such groups remains difficult to access and is often funnelled through other organisations.

Data is increasingly proving useful for policymaking but also shows how the problem of deforestation improves in one part of the world, it can simultaneously worsen elsewhere.

Dr Sassan Saatchi, the founder of CTrees and a NASA research scientist, explained to CNA that while Indonesia has cleaned up its palm oil industry, a massive cause of deforestation, analysis shows the issue has simply now moved to Africa.

“Southeast Asia is in okay shape. But some of the impacts, especially the palm oil plantations, are having leakage to other continents,” he said.

Dr Saatchi said that data from CTrees, which aims to track carbon in every tree on the planet, shows that deforestation has basically continued as usual since Glasgow. But he expressed hope that the situation may improve in Brazil soon, given the recent change of government.

“Another culprit for this whole forest cover change is degradation through fire and other things. Part of it is because of human activities and part of it, because of climate change. Now, the goal is actually to reduce this,” he said.

Earlier at COP27, Singapore joined a group of more than two dozen other countries that said they would ensure they hold each other accountable for a pledge to end deforestation by 2030.

Forests and Climate Leaders’ Partnership (FCLP) builds upon the agreement made in Glasgow and aims to “scale ambition and to find innovative solutions to ongoing problems”.

“Singapore is delighted to be part of the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership, to work with like-minded partners on innovative and environmentally robust solutions that would unlock the potential of the forestry sector for climate action, while reducing the loss of forests worldwide,” said Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu.

It is expected that a stocktake will take place at next year’s COP in the United Arab Emirates, with countries urged to come forward with progress reports on deforestation.

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