When we think of climate “solutions”, it’s hard to keep the mind from jumping to innovations. New ways of heating our homes, driving our cars and powering everything lend something inspirational and aspirational to the possibilities of a future that looks less certain by the week.
That view can be intoxicating, but it can also distract from all the areas where new technology isn’t necessarily the solution.
Just look at carbon sinks. All the solar energy in the world won’t make a difference in the long run if there aren’t enough trees, peat bogs and mangroves to cycle the carbon already in the atmosphere.
Unlike the energy, steel or aviation industries, which are deploying exciting new innovations to mitigate climate impact, the most important solutions for protecting forests rely on addressing deeper economic structures.
That’s not to say that technology doesn’t have a role to play in forest conservation. The Forest Stewardship Council relies on satellite and GIS data to issue its sustainable forest certification, and there are dozens of space tech startups (including a few that are hiring on Climatebase) sharing the burgeoning space with industry majors like Airbus’ Starling software.
While technological innovations are ideal for solving narrow decarbonization challenges, well thought-out policy is the weapon of choice for tackling the types of systemic economic problems that are driving deforestation.
This week the world saw developments in the two most common approaches to forest management policy: the carrot and the stick. In Zimbabwe, government officials are trying to lure foreign investors to cash in on their forests while in Indonesia officials are forcing offenders to get on the right side of the law– we take a look at which one is paying dividends so far.
More than 200,000 hectares of palm oil plantations in Indonesia are expected to be rehabilitated and turned to forest, according to a government announcement this week.
In 2020, the Indonesian government began studying a response to illegal palm oil operations ahead of a planned crack down this year. Starting this week, companies that are currently growing palm oil in designated forests will have to pay fines and purchase a license to continue operating, while they still can.
Even though roughly a fifth of all Indonesian palm oil operations are currently found in designated forests, implementation is expected to be piecemeal. So far, the government has only been able to identify companies with a combined 1.67 million hectares of palm plantation, and will focus enforcement on those larger operations first.
The government estimates the first enforcement round will recoup 200,000 hectares in the coming years, but the figure could go up as the government completes its studies into smaller producers.
Critics say that the law still falls short of penalizing the companies that have contributed most to the 25 million hectares of deforestation in Indonesia over the past two decades. Indeed, there are still significant scars left behind from the boom years in the 1990s when food and cosmetics companies first looked to palm oil to replace trans fats and animal-based chemicals in their products.
But a few years on from initial discussions, it looks like the government may have sent a market signal strong enough to change the industry’s worst habits. Deforestation has steadily decreased in Indonesia since 2018, leading a trend that has deforestation numbers down across Southeast Asia.
One of the more dubious approaches to fighting deforestation is being tried in Zimbabwe, where the government this year sold off 7.5 million hectares of its forests, nearly a fifth the country’s landmass, to a Dubai-based Blue Carbon General Trading company.
In the deal, Blue Carbon will preserve the forest to sell carbon credits. Blue Carbon will keep 70% of the profits from the credits, while leaving 30% for the Zimbabwean government. More than half of that money is set aside for community groups in the forest region.
That split is a far cry from a demand Zimbabwe made earlier this year when it canceled all of its existing forest carbon credit projects. In the wake of a report earlier this year finding fraud in the Kariba carbon project, Zimbabwe took over all carbon credit programs and demanded at least 50% of the proceeds from foreign-owned projects.
Observers on the ground are already showing skepticism about the plan. Locals are understandably scandalized by the government’s willingness to allow foreign owners a majority share over profits from their land, but they are also unconvinced the plan is practicable
The Emirati company that bought the forest is just over a year old and doesn’t have any demonstrated record of managing forests.
More importantly, critics see a deal that is meant to mask the deeper socioeconomic drivers of deforestation in Zimbabwe. While the Blue Carbon deal might make preserving one forest profitable, it doesn’t change the fact that millions of Zimbabweans depend on jobs in industries that depend on deforestation.
Zimbabwe is Africa’s largest tobacco exporter, an industry that supports no less than two million jobs.
Farmers typically cure their tobacco leaves over burning firewood, a process which requires as much as 31 kg of wood to produce one kilogram of marketable tobacco. Tobacco is responsible for 1.2-2.5 million hectares of deforestation in Africa every year, and until those workers have an alternative, they are all but guaranteed to stick with the opportunities they have.
As one tobacco worker in this African Arguments article put it, “We will only stop this trade if someone gives us formal jobs."
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