ASEAN Beat | Environment | Society | Southeast Asia

Can Contested Carbon Offsets Save Southeast Asia’s Forests?

A closer look at a key component of the region’s fight against the climate crisis.

Preeti Jha
Can Contested Carbon Offsets Save Southeast Asia’s Forests?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fires are once again raging through forests in Indonesia, shrouding cities as far as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in a thick smog. Across the globe, the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, is also ablaze. The flames have raised fresh alarm over the loss of vital frontiers in the battle against the climate crisis. In the search for solutions, the fires have also reignited a controversial debate: Are the schemes aiming to compensate tropical countries for preserving their forests, in a bid to combat the climate emergency, actually working?

The idea of paying developing nations to reduce carbon emissions from their forests was supposed be a game changer. From the start “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation” (REDD+) — as the range of policies and initiatives pursuing the concept were collectively called — was designed to work in multiple ways. Some REDD+ projects are results-based payment schemes run through the UN. Others are based on carbon offsets, where a company or government, for instance, buys “carbon credits” to stop trees being felled in a forest to “cancel out” their own emissions. But more than a decade since REDD+ entered the climate change lexicon, it is more divisive than ever.

A core argument against REDD+ is the premise itself: That rich countries and corporations can pass the buck of reducing emissions to poorer nations while continuing to use the fossil fuels responsible for most carbon emissions. “If we are to stand a chance of preventing runaway climate change we need to stop burning fossil fuels,” writes one REDD+ critic, Chris Lang, on the website REDD-Monitor. “We also need to protect forests, but trading REDD carbon credits would allow continued burning of fossil fuels, thus locking in polluting technology and postponing meaningful action.”

In a recent investigation into carbon credits, Lisa Song from U.S.-based ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom, found multiple examples where “carbon credits hadn’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with.” The LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment has also noted concerns about “attributing changes in deforestation to REDD finance.”

Another key issue is the impact of REDD+ on indigenous groups. Speaking to The Diplomat about her research in Malaysia, Professor Lee Godden, director of the Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law at the University of Melbourne, noted concerns over “how schemes would affect local communities and their customary use of the land,” especially for those whose claims to forests are unrecognized or still being contested in courts.

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Corruption and limited funds are also cited as obstacles. In Malaysia a REDD+ project launched in 2017 disbanded after the country’s national bank issued a warning against the companies involved. Song wrote about a scheme in Cambodia where forested area had fallen by around half nine years after it began. The project developers said the lack of carbon market buyers and donors had left the scheme “without the financial support it needs to succeed.” Song reports other “hurdles” in the forest such as violent border disputes that should have been “obvious.”

“The main barrier (for REDD+) is the lack of carbon markets,” according to Arief Wijaya, Climate and Forests Senior Manager at the World Resources Institute in Indonesia. He told The Diplomat that where projects were moving forward in Indonesia — home to the majority of Southeast Asia’s REDD+ initiatives — it’s down to bilateral relationships or multilateral funders like the World Bank.

Schemes move very slowly — proponents say that’s in part to address the concerns they raise — but in recent months REDD+ has made some progress in Southeast Asia. In February, Jakarta announced it would receive the first part of a $1 billion payment pledged by the Norwegian government (a decade earlier) for preventing carbon dioxide emissions. It was due to Indonesia’s reduced rate of deforestation in 2017, a rare bright spot for tree loss according to Global Forest Watch (but important to also note the bleak situation that activists point to today). And late last year Vietnam became the first Asia-Pacific nation to reach a major UN-REDD milestone related to safeguards, making it eligible to receive results-based payments. It’s a move the UN hopes will “inspire other countries” in the region to reach the “implementation” phase.

Across the world, California is this week considering a controversial carbon credits proposal involving firms offsetting their own emissions through markets such as the state’s cap-and-trade program. The move comes at a time of growing skepticism around credits. In June Niklas Hagelberg, a UN Environment climate specialist, himself wrote an article headlined, “Carbon offsets are not our get-out-of-jail free card” while supporting the concept as “a temporary measure” and “tool for speeding up climate action”.

Despite the failures and challenges of REDD+, many other experts also continue to back the idea at a time when urgency around climate action only grows. Last year scientists warned of the catastrophic consequences if global warming was not kept to a maximum of 1.5C by 2030. Forest-based solutions have been gaining traction: trees and plants are estimated to absorb nearly a third of the carbon dioxide that humans add to the air each year. But this natural buffer is under growing threat: A report published last week said global forest loss had accelerated in the last five years. The impact on emissions are dire: annual carbon emissions from deforestation worldwide were equal to the greenhouse gases produced by the European Union, it said.

“We need efforts around retaining forest cover more than ever,” said Professor Godden. While REDD+ is “no substitute” for nations reducing their consumption of fossil fuels, it’s “one of the few areas that holds potential in managing tropical rainforests.” She added that a big challenge was to find viable alternatives for forest use to counter forces that raze them, including legal and illegal logging.

The fires presently ravaging Indonesia, like in previous years, are mostly thought to have been started by farmers or companies illegally clearing land to farm crops such as palm oil.

Godden and Arief both think more funding would help REDD+ projects meet their goals. “It’s not a silver bullet as it was planned,” says Arief. “We need to address the root causes of deforestation in the tropics, which is weak land use governance… But the ideas of REDD+ are motivating countries to be more serious in tackling deforestation and forest degradation.”

The forest fires in Indonesia this year are the worst since 2015, when researchers estimated some periods saw daily emissions from the flames exceed daily emissions from the entire U.S. economy. Just days away from a crucial UN climate summit in New York, aimed at accelerating global action on the climate emergency, Southeast Asia’s forests and how best to keep them standing should be high on the agenda.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series exploring critical battlegrounds in Southeast Asia’s fight against the climate crisis. The next two parts will be published in the course of the next two weeks.