Southeast Asian forests are being seen as a key strategy to halt climate change – what will this mean for vulnerable forest communities?

Regan Suzuki Pairojmahakij, Senior Program Officer at RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, argues that the national plans to reduce carbon emissions, submitted in the lead up to COP21 taking place in Paris this December, must not leave forest-dependent people worse off. 

Southeast Asian nations raced to submit their national carbon emission targets last month in the lead-up to the global climate change meeting to take place in Paris this December (known as COP21), where an international agreement is expected to become one of the most significant milestones in climate change history.

From Southeast Asia, these submissions (called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) were made by Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam – many of which clearly prioritized forests as a key sector in helping to reduce carbon emissions. The INDCs are a centerpiece of the upcoming agreement in Paris. They provide a concreteness to commitments missing in previous COPs and seen by many as the critical hoped for difference between COP21 and previous failed agreements.

Especially within Southeast Asia, the land sector is an essential part of any strategy to respond to climate change. It represents around 25 percent of total global emissions and is unique among sectors (such as industry and transport) in that it has the potential to not only reduce emissions but also to capture and sequester them. Poorly managed, the land sector can be a source of up to 80 percent of emissions in some countries. If lands are managed sustainably, reducing global emissions and protecting areas that can absorb greenhouse gases becomes possible.

However, it is essential that strategies to reduce emissions do not leave forest-dependent people worse off. In Asia there are 450 million people in Asia who depend on forests, and who are also among the poorest, with the least access to livelihood options and basic services including education and healthcare. While it’s good news that countries in this region are prioritizing forests in their INDCs, it is essential that countries ensure that the principle of equity underlies their climate change strategies. Viet Nam is one country that has included livelihood development and income generation for communities and forest-dependent people in its INDC. But for others to succeed in sustaining forests and meeting their national carbon emission targets, they too must ensure that local forest communities are included in forest decision-making.

The following is a round-up of INDC submissions from countries in the region.

Cambodia: Conditional (on international support) reductions of 27% will be made in emissions by 2030. While these reductions take place explicitly from energy, manufacturing, transport, and other industrial sectors. Land use and forestry are highlighted as one of the primary mitigation strategies with a target of increasing forest cover to 60%.

Indonesia: Ambitious unconditional reductions in emissions by 26% by 2020, 29% by 2030. If international support is provided, these reductions commitment rise to 41% by 2030. Emission reduction strategies cover 5 sectors: energy, industrial processes and end product use, agriculture, land use and forestry and waste. Promisingly, commitments will be implemented through strategies including effective land use planning and sustainable forest management including social forestry.

Lao PDR: Outlines key sectoral actions to be taken (with estimated reductions in tons of CO2 rather than percentages). The forestry sector features strongly – primarily through the key action of increasing forest cover to 70% land area (implementing its national Forest Strategy to 2020). RECOFTC applauds the high profile of an enhanced forest sector, and encourages Lao PDR to undertake measures to increase forest cover through participatory and socially acceptable approaches.

Myanmar: Similar to Lao PDR, Myanmar emphasizes the global value of its forests as net GHG sinks. The forestry sector takes center stage in Myanmar’s INDC, namely actions associated with reaching forest cover targets (National Permanent Forest Estate Target at 30%, Protected Area Systems at 10%). REDD+ and forest law and timber legality programs are listed as key strategies to conserving and expanding forest cover.

Thailand: Unfortunately there was no inclusion of the land use sector or forestry in Thailand’s submission, though it explicitly reserves right to include at later point. Emission reduction strategies aimed at reducing emissions by 20% from projected business-as-usual (BAU) levels by 2030 through actions in transportation and industry sectors.

Viet Nam: Conditional emission reductions to 25% by 2030, unconditional reductions of 8% regardless of international support. The forestry sector and REDD+ are central to Vietnam’s emission reduction strategy with priority sectors for reductions focusing on: energy, agriculture, forestry sector and waste. One of the unconditional emission reduction activities features an increase in forest cover to 45%. Particularly positive is that Viet Nam’s emission reduction strategies include managing and developing sustainable forests, enhancing carbon sequestration and environmental services; conservation of biodiversity associated with livelihood development and income generation for communities and forest-dependent people.

While including the land use and forestry sectors as an emission reduction strategy has proven a technical challenge for many countries in the region, the fact that it features so prominently bodes well for global efforts at halting climate change and for the forest sector – but to succeed vulnerable local communities cannot be left out.

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