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Jakarta Post

A burning question before us

  • Vinod Thomas


New York   /   Tue, September 17, 2019   /   09:09 am
A burning question before us Firefighters battle a blaze on peatland in Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra on Aug. 10. The dry season has worsened fires in recent weeks. (AFP/Abdul Qodir)

The world faces a climate catastrophe aggravated by the wholesale burning of the world’s tropical forests especially in Indonesia and Brazil—a trigger for a climate tipping point.  A global solution is desperately needed to avoid an irreversible catastrophe that will have repercussions in Southeast Asia and every other part of the world. The UN General Assembly that meets this week in New York City must act in the face of this existential threat, and Indonesia must make its voice heard on this emergency. 

Swathes of Indonesian and Brazilian rainforest are ablaze, making precarious the fate of the world’s forests that, as the UN puts it, have an “unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon.”  As the architect of the Paris climate agreement and with its expertise on forestry, the UN should put these massive forest fires as its top agenda item and produce an actionable resolution.  Indonesia has a leadership role to play.

Of Southeast Asia, a recent IMF report says: “One of the most vulnerable regions to climate change is witnessing the world’s biggest jump in greenhouse gas emissions.” As a signatory to the Paris accord, Indonesia made an unconditional greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) reduction target for 2030 of 29 percent below business-as-usual and an additional reduction conditional on international support. But deforestation and peat fires, accounting for around 60 percent of Indonesia’s GHG emissions, are a huge concern. Shifting the capital from Java to the forest island of Borneo will be an ecological nightmare.

Scientists could not be clearer about the devastation of tropical forestsmelting glaciers and runaway climate change.  But what the UN must reckon with is that the vital signs are headed in the wrong direction, with CO2 emissions in the air rising to 415 parts per million (ppm) globally, the top emitters, China, United States, and India, burning more fossil fuels over the past three years, and temperatures hitting new records. 

Add to this picture the remaining forests in Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Sumatra islands, the huge, manmade fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest and fires in Siberia, and blazes even in Alaska. Aggravated by global warming, forests suffered their worst losses in recorded history in the past three years.  Related, the UN’s findings  indicate that 1 million species of plants and animals face extinction.

Every year for the past quarter of a century, large tracts of forest in Indonesia have been burnt to make way for palm oil and paper and pulp plantation. The resulting pollution and haze have caused health problems and disrupted schools not only in Indonesia but also Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore. Corruption feeds the destructive agricultural practices. President Joko Widodo had warned senior police and army officers that they would be fired if they failed to prevent forest fires.  He should make good on that promise. 

The Amazon rainforest has faced fires set by illegal loggers and cattle ranchers year after year, but 2019 is setting a record.  It is unacceptable that Brazil’s forest clearing was driven by President Jair Bolsonaro’s affirmative goal of deforestation in the name of economic growth, a baseless premise as previous periods of high deforestation never coincided with high economic growth.  Russian authorities’ slow response in Siberia allowed the fires to engulf a larger area.   

This resulting mayhem cannot be viewed as purely a country matter—as Brazil’s president has claimed. When neighbors’ health and well-being are endangered, as in Southeast Asia from the Indonesian fires and likely for South American neighbors from Brazil’s fires, burning one’s own forests is not just a domestic affair. The UN must label it as a crime against humanity.

Moreover, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed the vital role that reversing deforestation can have in keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The UN’s environment, development, and agriculture chiefs note in a joint statement that reversing deforestation could provide 30 percent of the climate solution. But to see these benefits, the UN together with multilateral development banks must extend vast compensatory financing for countries protecting forests.

Finally, missing is the leadership of the US, the largest carbon emitter per capita.  The Security Council should table a proposition calling for America’s re-engagement in the Paris Accord.  The world is paying a steep price for President Trump’s anti-ecological stance providing a knock-on effect in Brazil, Indonesia and others. This alone should be reason to shun at the polls candidates who endanger the environment.

Can the UN deliver in time on this global emergency with unparalleled risk? There is a chance this time because forestry and climate change are the UN’s niche, and because many leaders, including in Indonesia, are realizing that the climate catastrophe is no longer a threat over the horizon, but here and now. Nothing else matters unless this climate catastrophe is contained.


The author is a former senior vice president of the World Bank and currently Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore and at Asian Institute of Management, Manila.

An earlier version of this article was published on the Financial Times on Sept. 17, 2019.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.