Hunt’s direct action on rainforest could reap carbon rewards

Greg Hunt will face hurdles in his plan to stop rainforest logging, but there is much he could do now. Rainforest Action Network

Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt’s ambition to broker a new global rainforest recovery plan reopens an important conversation about Australia’s role in tackling tropical deforestation. And it reminds us there is much Australia could do right now.

According to Hunt in an announcement on 30 August, “[n]othing would do more to rapidly decrease the risk of climate change than a major plan to protect global rainforests”.

Deforestation accounts for approximately 10 - 15% of global carbon emissions and modelling has long shown reducing emissions from land clearing is an essential part of any serious global effort to tackle climate change.

But international rainforest politics is complicated. Hunt is proposing to enter an already crowded field. As Nigel Turvey pithily noted in The Conversation last week, “we already have a global deal on tropical rainforests, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD”.

REDD is a mechanism for countries in the “global north” to fund those in the “global south” to keep their forests standing, and to help them develop while avoiding deforestation. At this stage though, there is no functioning global REDD scheme. The closest thing in operation is a multilateral partnership (of which Australia is a member) intended to act as, “an interim platform for its partner countries to scale up actions and finance … initiatives to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries”.

One of the most significant divisions in policy thinking about REDD is about how the global scheme would be funded. A wide range of models have been suggested.

At one end of the spectrum are those based on the proposition developed countries should simply provide the money as aid, to enable the transition to alternative forms of development. At the other end, some REDD proponents, including Turvey, argue that there must be a market in forest carbon to pay for the scheme.

At present the issue of REDD funding mechanisms is highly contested and there is no international policy consensus. What is clear is that neither markets nor offsets are intrinsic to REDD: indeed the UNFCCC Cancun agreement makes no reference to offsets or carbon markets.

The question of REDD financing remains unresolved and the suggestion that voluntary investment in REDD initiatives itself might be sufficient to bridge the gap enjoys little support. REDD has a funding gap that the world somehow needs to fill.

If the Coalition is elected to office on the weekend, they could help reduce deforestation by making significant and serious investment of Australian effort in advancing global REDD talks. But given their preference for “direct action” on climate change – Hunt has already said that his rainforest plan “reflect[s] the opposition’s practical approach” – an Abbott government may be interested in something more immediately tangible (though not inconsistent with a broader multilateral approach in the longer run).

It makes sound geopolitical sense for Australia to directly support efforts to reduce deforestation in the great rainforest nations to our north, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

In Indonesia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has announced a set of laudable goals to reduce deforestation over some of the most biodiverse and climate-critical lands on earth.

It is estimated that emissions from Indonesia’s peat lands alone are more than double Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions each year.

In the event that Hunt becomes the minister, he could pursue a policy of direct action supporting the Indonesian government’s ambition to tackle deforestation. And given the affinity many Australians may feel for Indonesian rainforests (the country is our second most popular tourist destination) and their astonishing wildlife, including Sumatran orang-utans and tigers, direct Australian action to reduce deforestation in Indonesia could be electorally popular too.

Australian action to help Indonesia save its rainforests would involve substantial investment in tackling the drivers of deforestation. It would mean building governance capacity at the local level, sustainable land use planning and supporting law enforcement.

Prudent aid practice would tie funding to achievement of tangible outcomes. Hunt is also essentially right that multiple countries and other actors are trying to support Indonesia’s deforestation reduction strategy; best practice demands coordination.

Norway – always an intriguing comparator for Australia – has already committed US$1 billion to Indonesia to fight deforestation.

Both John Howard (2007) and Kevin Rudd (2008) announced projects to tackle deforestation in Indonesia.

But Australia’s major project – in Kalimantan – severely under-delivered and was essentially axed in June this year. In formulating future efforts, it will be essential to heed the lessons of Kalimantan: the announced targets were not met, funding from private partners did not materialise, and the project faced significant local opposition.

Future projects will require transparent design and implementation, adequate funding, and effective engagement with relevant Indigenous and local communities.

There is a lot Australia can do right now to reduce deforestation incentives in our own economy. The commodities most responsible for Indonesian deforestation are pulp and paper products, and palm oil, much of which is for the export market.

Major global companies such as Nestle and Unilever have already committed to removing produce sourced from deforested areas from their supply chains.

The Australian government should support these business efforts by compulsory labeling of vegetable oil - including palm oil, as recommended by the 2011 Review of Food Labeling Report.

Consumers would know what they were buying, and it would encourage producers to avoid palm oil. Australia could also help sort out the inadequacies in the current system for certifying sustainable palm oil.

Australia recently banned imports of illegal timber, a ban due to take effect late next year. Proper resourcing, implementation and enforcement of Australia’s new legislation is another crucial step in reducing deforestation.

Australia does not have to wait for the finalisation of any international deal to get behind efforts to save Indonesia’s rainforests.