Can Southeast Asia Meet its Environmental Pledges?

Deforestation in Laos. Courtesy of noon@photo / Adobe Stock

The countries of Southeast Asia have only gingerly signified their adherence to the Glasgow agreement to prevent deforestation. Adhering to its provisions will be an even bigger uphill struggle.

The COP26 climate summit aimed to secure more ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets (nationally determined contributions, NDCs) and work out the details on climate finance and other mechanisms that can help achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The first major deal from the two-week meeting was a pledge – the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use – by 140 countries to curb and reverse forest loss by 2030. The forest area covered by the signatories was estimated to be 3.69 billion hectares (90.9% of global forest area). Their pledge also includes the promotion of sustainable practices that do not drive deforestation and land degradation, support for indigenous peoples and local communities to build their resilience and improve their livelihoods, as well as significantly increased finance and investment for forest conservation and restoration, sustainable agriculture and forest management.

The Significance of the Deforestation Pledge

This pledge follows the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report which confirms that human activities, including cutting down forests, have warmed the climate and the world needs to act fast to stabilise rising temperatures. Hence, the promises are timely and essential as forests play an important role in fighting climate change on two counts. First, forests remove atmospheric carbon. On average, forests absorb 7.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – an equivalent to 20% of global emissions – annually. Second, ongoing forest clearance and frequent forest fires are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere. Removing these carbon sources would be a huge achievement for the new deforestation declaration.

The Commitments of ASEAN Members

Southeast Asia has approximately 12% of the world’s tropical forest area but one of the highest rates of deforestation. Disappointingly, only six ASEAN members (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam), making up 7.6% of global tropical forest area, have endorsed the declaration. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand have not yet signed on. They account for 4.1% of the world’s tropical forests.

The stakes are high for Southeast Asian countries in making sure that their deforestation commitments are a success

The wealthiest ASEAN country, Singapore, signed the declaration on the last day of COP26. The city state’s endorsement signals the country’s commitment to national and global climate actions. This gives Singapore an opportunity to showcase to the world how economic development and nature conservation can go hand in hand.

Vietnam and the Philippines are experiencing the most damage from climate change of all the ASEAN countries. Both signatories have reported in their updated NDCs that they have already suffered significant economic damage and non-tangible loss in terms of cultural heritage and biodiversity. The Philippines estimated that the super typhoon Haiyan resulted in the loss of approximately 4% of the country’s GDP in 2013. Southeast Asia has already experienced a rapid uptick in extreme events with a temperature rise since pre-industrial times of 1.1 degrees Celsius. Large population centres and economic assets are situated near coastlines in the region and are thus highly vulnerable to rising sea levels and coastal inundation.

The stakes are high for Southeast Asian countries in making sure that their deforestation commitments are a success. However, challenges are already looming. Some countries who have made the promise may now be ruminating on its implications for their economic development. Indonesia made an about-face almost immediately, arguing that the pledge was at odds with the country’s development plans. The clearance of forest for oil palm plantations, coal-fired power plants, and the nascent nickel mining industry (for electric vehicles) makes forest conservation a tall order and causes confusion over the country’s position.

Past Failures

Making promises to halt deforestation in Southeast Asia is not a novel idea, for some ASEAN countries have signed similar initiatives in the past. Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are signatories of the New York Declaration on Forests and committed to halve forest loss by 2020 and end it by 2030. Clearly, these four countries have failed to meet their targets as their forest covers have continued to decline by 0.5–0.8% since 2015. Such precedent creates doubt about the willingness of these countries to deliver on their ambitious promises.

Can ASEAN Endorsers Meet Targets?

Despite serious doubts, there are still reasons to be optimistic that ASEAN signatories can reduce forest loss and land degradation by 2030. Under the declaration, $12 billion in public funding from the EU will be mobilised over the next five years for developing countries to boost their forest conservation efforts. The private sector will provide $7.2 billion, on top of additional funding of $1.7 billion to be provided by 14 governmental and private donors to support indigenous peoples and local communities in their role as forest guardians.

For the declaration to be successful and for funding to reach local communities, governance in Southeast Asian countries must be improved

Separately, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, together with 42 other countries, have also signed up to a pledge to protect nature and transform farming systems to cut emissions. The announcement includes $660 million of funding from the UK to protect forests, and the pledges could leverage ‘more than US$4 billion of new public sector investment into agricultural innovation’.

These financial promises are timely and provide hope that ASEAN countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam who have requested international support – in terms of finance, technology and capacity building – can meet their recent climate pledge. Such financial support may also entice the least developed countries in Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia and Laos, to sign up to the deforestation pledge.

For the declaration to be successful and for funding to reach local communities, governance in Southeast Asian countries must be improved. One key issue is how transparent the countries are in reporting their progress in achieving their deforestation targets. Transparency is important because it provides a way to track the progress of each country’s climate actions. ASEAN countries that lack the capacity for transparency reporting could ask for more financial support in transiting from the current Measurement, Reporting and Verification arrangement to the Enhanced Transparency Framework (at the latest by 2024 under the Paris Agreement). This will help to track whether global climate finance has reached indigenous peoples and local communities.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Kelvin S-H Peh

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