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Over 10 years and $1bn on the table yet little was achieved in a historic forests deal, study says

<i>Aditya Aji/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>A barge filled with logged timber pulled along the Mahakam river passes the town of Samarinda
AFP via Getty Images
Aditya Aji/AFP/Getty Images
A barge filled with logged timber pulled along the Mahakam river passes the town of Samarinda

By Rachel Ramirez, CNN

More than a decade ago, Indonesia and Norway made a landmark deal: Norway would pay Indonesia up to $1 billion to slash its planet-warming emissions by slowing deforestation. The pact had some success, but new research shows it contributed little to Indonesia’s climate goals and suggests Norway could have paid the country far more for what it did manage to achieve.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that Indonesia successfully prevented up to 87 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from entering the atmosphere by pausing logging permits for huge swaths of carbon-rich tropical forest. But the researchers also noted that the results of this moratorium only amounted to 3 to 4% of the country’s goal to curb emissions under the Paris Agreement.

That’s a small impact, considering roughly 50% of the country’s annual emissions between 2000 and 2016 came from deforestation alone. A huge portion of Indonesia’s Paris pledge — to slash emissions by 29% by 2030 — could be met by ending deforestation practices.

Indonesia is home to the third-largest expanse of tropical rainforest, following Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Destroying tropical forests releases massive amounts of planet-warming gases. Yet it’s exactly Indonesia’s vast resource-filled forests that attract industrial corporations to exploit what the ecosystem has to offer.

With a years-long record of deforestation for palm oil, pulp and paper, timber, and other logging activities — both legal and illegal — Indonesia remains among the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters.

The study comes months after the Indonesian government terminated its long-standing agreement with Norway in September, pointing to a delay in payments as one of the main reasons.

In 2010, under the Indonesia-Norway pact, the Norwegian government committed to pay $5 for every ton of CO2 Indonesia prevented from being released into the atmosphere. Indonesia primarily achieved these reductions through its moratorium on new permits, preventing forests and peatland being cleared for development, including for palm oil, timber and pulp and paper plantations.

In 2020, Norway agreed to pay $56 million after assessing that Indonesia had avoided more than 11 million tons of CO2 in 2016-2017 by protecting forests.

But using satellite data and historical trends, the study’s researchers found that Indonesia’s cumulative emissions reduction from 2011 — when its moratorium began — to 2018 totaled up to 87 million tons, far exceeding the payment from its Norwegian donor. The researchers said the amount should have been more than $330 million if the whole term was considered.

That means for the $56 million it paid Indonesia, Norway effectively bought CO2 emission reductions at a rate of less than $1 a ton.

Norway’s International Climate and Forests Initiative declined to comment to CNN on the study’s findings, but in a previous statement from September, after Indonesia canceled the deal, the initiative said it had been looking forward to making more payments in the future.

“This is not supposed to be a critique of Norway, and its activities particularly,” Ben Groom, a co-author on the study and biodiversity economics professor at the University of Exeter Business School, told CNN

“It’s really just the scientific view of the effectiveness of the policy,” he said, while commending Norway for its efforts.

“There should be more Norways out there.”

Deforestation was a major topic at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last November. More than 100 countries representing over 85% of the planet’s forests — including Indonesia — pledged to end and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. Among other the nations that signed were Canada, Russia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all of which have significant tracts of forest.

But Charles Palmer, a co-author on the report and an environment and development professor at the London School of Economics, said the statement at COP26 goal was ambitious and “not very realistic” because it all comes down to money and on-the-ground incentives, particularly for developing countries like Indonesia.

He added that deforestation has simply slowed in Indonesia — it had not ended.

“With the commitment to stop deforestation by 2030, you’re kind of saying this trend is going to end, which is just not very realistic,” he said.

Groom said that they consider their research a bridge between COP26 and the summit to be held later this year in Egypt, which he said will be another test to how committed developed countries are in helping poorer nations.

“Rich countries need to make good on their commitments,” Groom said. “That’s the only way we’re going to get any kind of significant change in that forests overall.”

This story has been updated to include the credentials of Charles Palmer, a co-author on the study.

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