fishThe science of climate change is complex, but everyone should know the basics: the Earth is heating up because gases produced by vehicles, power plants, deforestation, and other sources are building up in the atmosphere, acting like a thick blanket over our planet, over-heating the planet and threatening our health, our economy and our environment.

Climate change is already beginning to transform life on Earth. Around the globe, seasons are shifting, temperatures are climbing and sea levels are rising. Research shows that the world has now become hotter than at any time during the past 1000 years.

Until recently global warming didn’t worry too many people. A few years back people thought it was a joke, a fantasy dreamed up by scientists. But things have changed. Many people now accept the reality of global warming. And this includes most of the world’s governments. We also realize that global warming is mostly bad news. Rising sea levels will threaten coastal communities, especially affecting countries like Indonesia which has very long coast lines. We will see more extreme droughts and other weather events.

About three billion people who live in poverty around the world will be hardest hit by climate change. The poor are more dependent on natural resources and have less of an ability to adapt to a changing climate. Diseases, declining crop yields and natural disasters are just a few of the impacts of climate change that could devastate the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Keeping the Rainforest Intact

Many agree that we need to reduce the release of greenhouse gasses, such as CO2, into the atmosphere. One way to do this is to avoid further deforestation. Between 2000 and 2005, loss of global forests was about 7.5 million hectares per year, or about twice the size of the Netherlands. The loss of tropical forests alone released some 5.5 billion ton of CO2 throughout the 1990s, accounting for almost 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, reducing forest loss can have a significant impact on reducing global warming.

But how do we reduce forest loss? First we need to know what is actually causing deforestation. Among the many factors, unsustainable logging (illegal and legal), fires, development of plantations for palm oil and pulp and paper, unregulated mining, and also small-scale agricultural activities stand out as major factors. These activities can take place because national and local governments develop land use plans that aim at rapid economic development of forest areas. So the key to reducing loss of forest and species like orangutans is to convince governments to not allocate forest to non-forest use.

fish2Let’s look at an example. Of the 8 million hectare of land earmarked for oil palm development in Kalimantan, 1 million is in orangutan forest habitat. This means that some 10,000 orangutans or about 20% of Kalimantan’s remaining populations are threatened by oil palm. Some of this oil palm will be planted on peat lands, which basically consist of carbon. Development of these peats can release vast amounts of CO2. This is one of the reasons why the Indonesian government is looking into better protection of peat lands.

But these are not easy choices. Oil palm is highly profitable. One hectare of oil palm on peat can result in more than US$4,000 in annual revenues. On non-peat soils in Kalimantan this is reduced to some US$ 3,000, but this is still a lot of money.

One potential help in the protection of forests comes from payments for avoided deforestation. Increasingly, buyers in the United States, Australia, and Europe are willing to pay forests users in countries like Indonesia to protect forests. Payments for this can be substantial.

Erik Meijaard, TNC Indonesia’s senior science advisor, explains how payments for avoided deforestation could be at a level similar to revenues from oil palm.

“At a carbon price of US$ 3.50/ton, peat land conservation could be worth as much as the annual revenues from oil palm. If in addition, some timber is extracted at low volumes forests would be worth more than oil palm,” he says.

Local communities would then still enjoy forest benefits like bush meat, fish, fruit, honey and other products. Much depends on market price development of palm oil and carbon and the availability of carbon buyers, but as Erik says “payments for avoided deforestation on peat could save species like orangutans while allowing for economic growth in Indonesia.”

Not all forest is on peat, although the potential value of other forests through avoided deforestation is also high and could provide a badly needed stimulus to forest and wildlife conservation, it appears that revenues from oil palm, mining, and pulp and paper plantations is often higher. If we think in economic terms alone, there will likely be more forest loss in Indonesia.