Digging deeper: what Indonesia’s emissions reduction experiment reveals about fighting deforestation

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A recent study by a team of environmental economists from the London School of Economics and the University of Exeter examines whether Norway’s commitment to contribute $300 million a year to “reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” (REDD+) has borne fruit on the ground. level. In the agreements signed at the 2007 Conference of the Parties (COP-13) in Bali, Norway had promised this amount in bilateral agreements with tropical countries such as Brazil, Guyana, Tanzania and Indonesia; in exchange for their efforts to mitigate global warming.

The COP is an annual conference of all countries that are members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and is the ‘supreme decision-making body of the Convention’. The first COP was held in Berlin, Germany in 1995 and has been convened annually since then; and this year’s COP (COP-27) will be held in Egypt.

REDD+ constitutes an important milestone in the history of COPs. Adopted at the 13th Conference of the Parties (COP-13) in Bali, REDD+ aims to ‘reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation’, with the ‘+’ referring to ‘enhancing forest carbon stocks due to to sustainable forest management’.

As part of agreements between Norway and other partner countries, Norway had pledged $1 billion ‘to finance results-based REDD+ payments’. With regard to Indonesia in particular, one of the key instruments of this system was the moratorium on the granting of new licenses to convert dryland forests and peatlands into production centers for timber and palm oil.

But, the study questions, is the method working? Having paid Indonesia $56.2 million (at a rate of $5/ton CO₂ equivalent), is Norway getting its money’s worth? Clearly, control of forest land management has been plagued by the usual problems of corruption and poor law enforcement. There is also, as Groom et al (2022) point out, a lack of coordination between the different levels of government.

What if the differences observed between the moratorium and non-moratorium areas only reflect the contrasts that already existed before the agreement entered into force? What if measured deforestation is simply a reflection of natural processes (eg weather patterns) or economic exigencies (eg falling demand), and not the result of the moratorium?

To answer these questions, the researchers examined Global Forest Change Data from 2004 to 2018, which also includes the period before the moratorium. They considered factors such as topography and proximity to markets to assess the likelihood that each area would be subject to forest loss due to timber cultivation. Of special attention was a phenomenon called ‘leakage’, whereby licenses to produce wood and palm oil are granted for areas outside the moratorium, even when these activities cease in the moratorium areas. Leakage, as the study acknowledges, is a major impediment to forest conservation efforts and creates an artificial contrast to observed forest cover in moratorium versus non-moratorium areas.

The results are not surprising: “Overall, the proportion of forest cover has decreased, both inside and outside the limits of the moratorium, between 10 and 15 percentage points between 2000 and 2018.” However, the decline is much more pronounced outside the limits of the moratorium and outside the concession areas (ie, the areas where agriculture was allowed).

Contrasting dryland forest and peatland forest, the two forest types studied here, Groom et al (2022) find that dryland forest cover is comparable between concession areas inside and outside moratorium regions. . However, the same cannot be said for peat swamp forests, where coverage is higher in concessions outside the moratorium regions than in inland ones. They conclude that the moratoria, while cost effective, were effective in protecting no more than 0.01 km2 of dryland forest in each 1.2 km x 1.2 km grid cell; while the estimates for peat swamp forests were not statistically significant. As for leakage, the analysis failed to ‘identify significant leakage from the moratorium to surrounding areas’.

Calling to question Norway’s payment of $56.2 million, which includes reductions from avoided peat decay and forest fires, the study argues that “seen solely in terms of performance, this part of the payment could justifiably be withheld.” . The problem lies primarily in the choice of baseline data adopted by the Indonesian-Norwegian partnership, which the researchers believe could reflect natural and economic factors unrelated to REDD+ and thus open to biased interpretation.

The moratorium was unilaterally lifted by the Indonesian government in 2021 and is likely to be replaced by other REDD+ initiatives. It is argued that, in order to meet Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) targets, future schemes must engage local smallholders whose activities contribute to almost a fifth of total national forest loss. Lastly, the mechanisms for allocating funds need to be formalized and further consolidated. However, much depends on the individual countries participating in REDD+ initiatives.

The author is an independent science communicator. ([email protected])

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